The very first service dogs were guide dogs trained to assist blind veterans of World War I. Since then, the service dog field has grown to include mobility dogs, medical alert dogs, psychiatric service dogs, seizure response dogs and hearing dogs. Each group calls for different tasks related to the disabilities they serve. Some dogs have fingers in multiple pies, so to speak, and are trained in tasks from multiple groups.
As public awareness of these awesome dogs increases, more individuals wonder if a dog might help them. Some of folks are interested in training the pet dog they already love to become a service dog. If you’re one of those people, here are some prerequisite questions to consider!
Clarity in Vocabulary
When an owner contacts me about service dog training, the first thing I do is double-check vocabulary. There are several different groups of dogs that often get confused, so I want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.
Service Dog. This dog is specially trained to perform tasks that mitigate his handler’s disability. He has public access rights into no-pets-allowed locations. There is no requirement in the US to register or certify this dog.
Emotional Support Animal. This animal’s presence provides emotional support for his handler. He does not require any special training. A doctor’s letter gives his handler permission to take him on board airplanes and live in “no-pets” housing.
Therapy Dog. This dog is trained to help people other than his handler. He does receive training to ensure he has good general manners. He is invited to work in specific locations such as libraries, hospitals and nursing homes, and does not have general public access rights.
With vocabulary taken care of, the next thing to clarify is handler qualifications. I hope it goes without saying, but it’s not okay to fake a service dog. In Texas, it’s actually a misdemeanor.
To function as a legal service dog team, the handler must be disabled and the dog must be trained in tasks that mitigate that disability. Anything else is criminal.
Note that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not recognize the dog’s comforting presence as a “task.” If this is the only help the dog provides, he’s an Emotional Support Animal, not a Service Dog.
After vocabulary and qualifications check, the next step is getting your dog’s temperament professionally assessed.
The world is extremely unpredictable, and service dogs are expected to roll with the punches that come with public access. They must be unconcerned about the toddler screaming two aisles over, the shopping carts clattering together, and the fifteen men in baseball caps they’ve seen in the last half hour.
Service dogs must also function as support for their handler in the midst of the chaos! It’s one thing for me to take a dog out to Lowe’s for training. It’s another thing for a service dog handler to go to Lowe’s to get a new ceiling fan. My errand is all about training the dog and setting her up for success. The handler’s errand is about living life and getting things done.
Unfortunately, temperament isn’t something we can change with training. Either the dog has the temperament to enjoy service work, or he doesn’t. Forcing a dog into a job he doesn’t enjoy and isn’t suited for is not only unethical, it isn’t beneficial for dog or handler.
If you’re local to the Austin area, Sarah Bond at Bond Dog Training provides temperament assessments!
Tasks and Training
If your dog gets the green light, actual training can begin. I recommend working with a qualified, rewards-based trainer for this (Sarah offers that, too!). In addition to basic obedience and public access skills, your dog will need to learn tasks to assist you. Sometimes you might not know exactly which tasks you want, but if you know where you need help, the trainer can offer recommendations. You can also find a list of various tasks on the IAADP website.
If your dog’s temperament is unsuited for public access, but you only need help at home, your dog might be a candidate for an in-home service dog. In-home service dogs don’t receive public access training, and they do not have public access rights, but they can still benefit their handlers at home.
In the US, there is no requirement to certify or register a service dog. Websites that advertise certificates, vests, badges, etc. for $$ are scams.
If you need help training a service dog, contact me!