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Dog lovers know the benefits of a canine companion are too numerous to mention. On top of this, some dogs provide professional service to folks who need it. Thanks to the ADA’s ruling in 1990, these service dogs are more than pets. Which dogs are most suitable to be service dogs, and how do they get certified? We’ve got a step-by-step guide for getting a dog service-ready.
For more info, check out this well-reviewed guide to training your own service dog. (Pro tip: it’s currently free on Kindle Unlimited.)
Which Breeds are Best for Service Work?
The short answer: any breed! That said, German shepherds, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and border collies are common for a variety of services because of trainability and typical personality. A larger dog may be necessary for physical assistance like mobility, but medical alert services or emotional support can be performed by a smaller breed.
Not sure of your dog’s breed makeup? Dog DNA tests can provide valuable insight into your dog’s breed-related instincts. The Wisdom Panel test is an affordable option that receives high marks for accuracy.
Overall, your dog’s temperament and health are most important. That leads us to step one.
Step 1. Assessing Age and Health for Service Dogs
An inaugural visit to the vet (with regular checkups) is important: health conditions like arthritis and diabetes put an undue strain on the best of pets, so adding service animal responsibilities is unwise.
All service dogs should also be neutered so that males are less aggressive and females don’t face working when in heat. Dogs should be at least 6 months old and past the puppy phase, too.
Step 2: Test Your Dog’s Personality
Some dogs are aggressive while others are submissive, and in many cases this isn’t “good” or “bad”— it’s not that simple. The right temperament for a service animal is a very narrow margin between these two poles. If your dog is calm, cool, and collected, but also alert and responsive, chances are she’s a good fit for service work. Paw Rescue has a great primer on dog temperament, with additional resources for testing ideas.
As noted above, it can be helpful to know about your dog’s typical breed characteristics. If you have a mixed-breed pooch, a reputable doggy DNA test can help you understand their heritage better.
Step 3: Find a Reputable Service Dog Trainer
Certain people have a DIY spirit, but many of us won’t be up to the task of the in-depth training it takes to have a tested assistance animal. Legally in the United States, there is no required certification, but the service animal training community has come up with self-regulated, minimum standards for training. Search for a reputable trainer near you!
Step 4: Time to Train Your Service Dog
Putting in the requisite amount of time is critical. That’s why it’s wisest to use an established trainer.
International standards are a minimum of 120 hours over six months or more—up to 24 in some cases. At least 30 of those hours should be time spent in public dealing with the distractions and potential surprises that come with it.
While the U.S. has no defined requirement, self-regulation is critical and these hours and guidelines are wise to follow. They break down into the following three phases:
- Heeling can be difficult to teach some dogs. It’s a lot more nuanced than “come here” or “sit,” It’s about maintaining relative position to the handler (human partner) regardless of how the handler moves.
- Proofing can be time-consuming, as it requires training the dog to tune out all distractions and constantly be on command.
- Tasking, or learning the specific task they’ll be performing, is what most people think will be most difficult. After surmounting the other two concepts, this is often the easiest. Tasks include providing guidance or sensing a medical alert.
Step 5: Public Access Test
It’s time for prime time. Video documentation is always helpful when it’s time to put all that training to the test. Among other things, some basic expectations for a service dog include:
- No aggressive behavior (biting, barking, growling, etc.)
- Only urinating or defecating on command
- Surcease of sniffing behaviors
- No solicitations for food or affection
- Curbed excitement and hyperactivity
The ADI provides a public access test in PDF form you can download and utilize.
Step 6: Registration and Equipping
Again, our present situation in the United States is self-regulated. That means we need to be as polite in our public conduct as the dogs we’ve so diligently trained.
Documenting the training process, public access test, and registering with a reputable service like the United States Service Dog Registry will help ensure canine competency and any future situation where your dog (or you) might be questioned.
The ADA has put in great safeguards to protect humans in need of service animals and their pet partners, but having solid answers and evidence in case of misunderstanding or altercation is never going to hurt. If our dogs can go the extra mile, then so can we.
Step 7: Finding Someone in Need
Simply having a trained service animal doesn’t mean they can accompany you, or just anyone, into places pets are denied. Public accommodations must legally be made for service dogs who are accompanied by the individual with the disability.
Service dogs provide help for people facing one or more potentially disabling life conditions. Along with physical disabilities, this includes depression, anxiety, and PTSD. If you or someone you care about could benefit from a service dog, these steps will help you assess if your pet partner has the potential to be of even greater service than the unconditional love they already provide.
You might also want to check out our guide to fostering therapy dogs, which are related to, but distinct from, service dogs.