There is more to it than one may think, but learning how to make your dog a service dog is possible. Most people purchase service dogs that are already trained, but some owners prefer to train the existing dogs that they are already comfortable with.
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What is a Service Dog?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is defined as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” For the record, a dog is the only animal that can be considered a service animal according to ADA.
Before being assigned to a handler, service dogs are typically chosen when they are very young. They are singled out as dogs that are able to be taught very complex tasks. High intelligence and being easily trainable are just two of the many characteristics that are required of a service dog.
Future service dogs undergo rigorous training. They must have the ability to assist a person with a particular disability and these canines are often adopted by handicapped people, those with anxiety or PTSD, and other mental and physical disabilities.
It will take hard work, patience, and a lot of research, but you too can learn how to make your dog a service dog if you're up to the task. Below are some tips on where to start.
How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog
Service Dogs and the Law
Service dogs are sometimes confused with therapy dogs or emotional support dogs, but while they're all assistance animals, there's a very significant difference between them. Out of these three categories, a service dog is at the “highest rank” and not every canine can become a proper service animal.
Service dogs have a very precise definition. They have the right to enter almost any public place in order to assist the disabled. Even when it comes to restaurants that are not pet-friendly, and even in the places with food where the rule says that animals are not allowed due to health concerns, service dogs are always the exception.
It is illegal (on state and federal levels) to refuse service to people with service dogs or not to allow them to enter the establishment. The staff also cannot ask questions about the service dog or ask them to “prove” that it's a service dog. There are only 2 questions that an establishment is allowed to ask a person with a service dog:
- Is this a service dog that is assisting the disabled?
- What is the dog trained to help with? (Without asking about a specific disability.)
Any other questions (including asking for medical confirmation) are considered to be breaking the ADA’s guidelines and are grounds for a lawsuit. The only person who's allowed to ask these questions is a judge in a courtroom.
The ADA also highly emphasizes that a person with a service dog cannot be treated differently than any other customer or charged any additional fees.
All the above explains why service dogs are considered to be important and why their training is so rigorous. This immunity to “No Dogs Allowed” rules and other clauses is exclusive to service dogs only and other assistance animals such as therapy dogs do not share it.
Buying a Service Dog vs Training Your Existing Dog
Now that you know what a service dog is and if your living situation would be helped with a service dog, you may want to turn your own pet into a service animal. This is doable, but your dog will need extensive training to become a service dog.
Most handlers choose to purchase a dog that is already trained to be a service animal because the majority of owners do not have the skills (or time, or patience) to train an existing dog into a service dog. Some others may choose to purchase a puppy and work with a certified Service Dog Trainer.
While already pre-trained Service Dogs are extremely expensive (the average cost of a service dog can be anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000), but buying a “qualifying puppy” and using a service of a certified trainer can be pricey as well (more than “regular dog trainer”).
This crazy expensive cost of service animals is why some pet owners choose to train their existing dogs to be service dogs, which would be significantly cheaper.
How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog
Note: It is way beyond the scope of a single article to walk you through all the steps on how to make your dog a service dog with training, but I've done all this research myself before so I can help guide you to all the right places so you can create a plan of action.
As I mentioned, this task won't be easy. If you can afford it, I definitely recommend working with a trained professional. It will ensure that your dog gets the proper training required to be a successful working dog suitable to help you while running errands and visiting public places.
Even if you cannot afford the full-length course of service dog training with a certified professional, consider at least some classes and consultations that would help you to more effectively train your dog to be a service animal.
This would be a good place to note that the ADA does not require official training or any official registration or licensing of service dogs. If you ever see any company or website advertising as “Official Service Dog Certification” (or anything similar) – this is a scam and you should avoid it. However, ADA does state that the animal must be under the control of the handler at all times.
A great place to start is with an online search. The internet has several lists of certified Service Dog Trainers, but remember to do your due diligence and make sure that they are what they appear to be. Due to the high costs (and profits) of training service dogs, there are always scams around. And just because they have a well-made shiny professional-looking website doesn't mean they are qualified or even legitimate.
Once you find a trainer in your area, it will be up to you to go visit the facility (do not rely on online communication), ask questions, and check references to make sure the dog trainer is capable of doing the job and actually have experience and certifications in training service animals.
Some reputable sources for finding service dog trainers include:
- National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers
- Karen Pryor Academy
- Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers
If you believe that you have the patience and determination to train your dog by yourself, I would recommend doing extensive research online, looking for helpful books online, and consulting handlers with first-hand experience. Training a dog to do anything takes time, and training a service dog can be especially challenging and time-consuming because the tasks are much more in-depth (and there's far more of them, too).
Books on How to Train Your Dog to be a Service Dog
I've mentioned books on training your own service dog, but there are only a few good ones out there. I recommend the two books by Max Matthews. He's been training service dogs for over 30 years and his books contain detailed step-by-step tips with pictures and thorough explanations on everything you need to know about training service animals
Note: Do not buy the Kindle version. You will need to see the photos included in these books and from personal experience, Kindle doesn't always include good quality pictures or sometimes completely omits them.