Service dogs assist over 80 million Americans! They perform a variety of tasks that support those with disabilities. Most people are familiar with guide dogs for the blind. However, service dogs are available for many disabilities: physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental. If you need a dog for a critical task, you qualify for a service dog. If you were wondering how to get a service dog, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn more!
Service Dogs and the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” The service dog performs at least one critical task for you. These include:
- Serving as your eyes
- Alerting you to sounds you can’t hear
- Helping you move
- Alerting you to changes in blood sugar levels
- Sensing a seizure
- Scanning a room before you enter
The ADA protects you and your service dog. Legally, people can only ask two questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
In most cases, people only question if it isn’t apparent your dog is a service dog. A lot of people dress their dog in vests marked “Service Dog.” You do NOT have to have your dog demonstrate any tasks. You also do NOT have to describe your disability. The ADA provides this protection EVERYWHERE.
Obtaining a Service Dog
It’s difficult to admit a disability. “Disability” has a negative connotation in society. Unhappily, the first step in obtaining a service dog is an acknowledgment that you have a disability. Without a diagnosis from your doctor (NOT Dr. Google), you won’t see a service dog any time soon.
Many organizations that provide service dogs have strict requirements:
- Be at least 12-years-old*
- Have a stable home environment
- Be physically and mentally capable of participating in training (at least one hour a day)
- Be independently capable of issuing commands and handling the service dog
- Meet the physical, emotional, and financial needs of the service dog
- Not have any other DOGS in the household (other pets are okay)
*Children with autism or epilepsy are allowed service dogs. However, they have requirements in addition to those above:
- Be 6-12-years-old
- Be enrolled in an education program
- Enroll in a speech, physical, occupational, or recreational therapy program
- Have strong familial support
- Have a parent, guardian, or family member over 18 living in the house to serve as the home-trained facilitator
Finding Your Service Dog
You CAN train a service dog yourself. However, training takes YEARS. You need to take your limitations into account. How difficult will the training be? The other option is to seek out a service dog organization.
Service dogs ARE expensive. There are two associated costs: the adoption fee and the training fee. Bear in mind you’ll participate in training, too. You need to learn commands and how to work with your dog. The ADA doesn’t set standards for training. However, international standards recommend 120 hours over six months. During that time, they recommend 30 hours out in public.
Sound like a lot? It is and professional organizations set HIGH standards. The drop-out rate is 50-70%! (Don’t worry – drop-outs get adopted) These dogs HAVE to meet the following criteria:
- ZERO aggressive behaviors
- Stopping of sniffing behaviors EXCEPT on command
- No solicitation for affection or food while on duty
- No hyperactivity in public
- Able to tolerate novel sights and sounds in public
- No unruly behavior or barking
- No relieving themselves in public EXCEPT on command
That’s a lot to ask of a dog! It’s also a lot to take on yourself.
Luckily, there are amazing organizations out there that provide financial assistance, low-cost, or even no-cost service dogs.
- 4 Paws for Ability
- Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC)
- Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks
- Canine Assistants
- Dogs for Better Lives
- Guiding Eyes for the Blind
- National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS)
- Lions Club International
- Paws with a Cause
- Service Dogs, Inc.
- Summit Assistance Dogs
Service Dogs by Type
Every disability is different, and service dogs are specialized. Your specific needs dictate which service dog to look for. (Please note, some groups are listed above)
Guide dogs are the most well-known service dogs. The first recognized service dogs, they date back to the 1920s. Guide dogs lead visually-impaired and blind around obstacles.
- The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation
- The Guide Dog Foundation
- Guide Dogs for the Blind
- Guide Dogs of America
- Leader Dogs for the Blind
- The Seeing Eye
- Southeastern Guide Dogs
Hearing dogs assist the hearing-impaired and deaf by alerting them to noises (alarms, doorbells, etc.). They accomplish this by touching their person and leading them to the source of the sound.
Assistance dogs provide a variety of functions, depending on the person’s disability.
For people with mobility issues, dogs bring objects, press automatic buttons on doors, serve as a brace, or help pull wheelchairs up ramps.
For people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), service dogs enter rooms first and switch on lights, serve as a physical barrier out in public, and remind the person to take their medications.
- America’s VetDogs
- Angel Canines for Wounded Warriors (ACWW)
- Canine Companions for Independence, Inc. (CCI)
- Pets for Patriots
- Puppies Behind Bars
- Service Dogs for America
- Warrior Canine Connection
Alert dogs assist people who have conditions such as diabetes or seizures. They scent changes in blood sugar or the onset of seizure activity and attract their person’s attention. People with diabetes then know to test their blood sugar. People with epilepsy do what they can to position themselves safely.
In comparison, seizure response dogs alert those around their person that a seizure is happening. They may move their person from unsafe areas or bring them medication.
Children with autism have improved lives with companion dogs. Such service dogs prevent the child from wandering away, or they track the child.
Service Dogs and Independence
No one likes admitting they need help. No one wants to admit they’re different. If your disability is invisible, you don’t want to stand out.
However, if your life has the potential for improvement with a service dog, those admissions aren’t so bad.
If you’re willing to commit to the training required, you can obtain a service dog and form a lasting partnership. You won’t regret it.