Training service dogs is a noble calling. The career allows you to work closely with dogs that are destined to become indispensable partners for their future handlers. Because of service dogs, people with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities can lead more independent lives.
Types of Service Dogs
Dogs have long worked as guides for the blind, but today they help people in far more ways. There are:
- Mobility and stability service dogs
- Medical alert service dogs for conditions like life-threatening allergies, diabetes, and epilepsy
- Psychiatric service dogs
- Autism or sensory processing disorder service dogs
Any breed–or mixed-breed–dog can be trained to be a service dog. There are no restrictions on so-called “bully breeds” becoming service dogs, either. Certain tasks require larger, sturdier dogs like German Shepherds or Golden Retrievers, but for many disabilities, small breeds do just fine.
What Distinguishes a Service Dog from Other “Helper” Dogs?
To be classified as a service dog, an animal must be trained to perform a specific task directly related to the handler’s disability. This can include something as basic as hitting the button to open an automatic door or as demanding as taking initiative in a medical emergency when the dog’s handler is unresponsive.
Though they often are, service dogs should never be confused with therapy dogs or emotional support animals. Therapy dogs and emotional support animals may be very helpful and fulfill important roles, but they cannot be classified as service dogs because they are not specifically trained to work or do a task to mitigate a disability. As such, they are not allowed the same type of public access that service dogs are allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
ADA regulations concerning service dogs do not place a lot of hurdles before people with disabilities. No special ID or certification is needed for a dog to be considered a service dog before the law. True, service dogs often wear vests or harnesses that identify them as such, but they don’t have to. Handlers do not have to carry documentation to prove the dog is a service dog and not a pet.
In fact, the ADA allows only two questions to be asked of a service dog’s handler.
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Of course, this does not guarantee that problems won’t arise because of improperly trained or misinformed “gatekeepers,” but legally, there are only a tiny number of circumstances in which a service dog is restricted. It’s problematic if a dog becomes aggressive, for example. Also, a sterile environment like an operating room would have reason to deny access.
What Sorts of Tasks Can Service Dogs Perform?
Service dogs are trained to suit the needs of a particular handler. For example, many psychiatric service dogs help veterans deal with PTSD. Depending on the handler, such a dog could be trained to perform such anxiety-related tasks as:
- providing a buffer between the handler and a crowd–even if it’s just a few people
- bringing medication
- performing a room check before the handler enters
- turning on lights
- reducing hypervigilance
- waking the handler from a nightmare or night terror
- interrupting flashbacks
- helping the handler exit a building when a panic attack occurs or when the handler is overwhelmed
Autism or sensory processing disorder service dogs might be asked to perform tactile stimulation to help distract the handler from certain behaviors. They can also provide deep pressure or deep touch pressure therapy. Autism service dogs help their handlers maintain personal boundaries. Some of the same anxiety-relieving tasks that help with PTSD also help people with autism when they become overstimulated.
Mobility and stability/brace service dogs might be confused for one another, but they have different jobs. Mobility dogs generally help handlers who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or other devices to help them get around. Their tasks might include picking up something the handler dropped, opening drawers, fetching items, helping with dressing, or wearing a backpack to carry things. Some mobility service dogs pull wheelchairs or carts.
Stability dogs, on the other hand, are extremely sturdy, well-built dogs because they must be able to bear the weight of their handler. They wear harnesses with a special handle and stay in hand’s reach. They might provide help balancing for people with vertigo, or they may assist people who stumble frequently or whose legs might collapse. They are trained to lean on their handlers to provide extra support; if the handler falls, the dog acts as a brace for standing.
Medical alert service dogs can learn a wide range of tasks. As very young puppies, dogs destined to become diabetes service dogs begin scent training to recognize low blood sugar and high blood sugar. Similarly, dogs who help people with life-threatening allergies must learn to sniff out things like peanuts to help their handlers avert catastrophe.
Sometimes medical alert service dogs perform on cue. They may be taught to cover their handler with a blanket or get medication out of a refrigerator, for example.
Sometimes, however, these dogs must act on their own initiative. When a handler has a seizure, for example, a dog must know what to do without being told.
A medical alert service dog can be taught to respond to personal changes or environmental cues and perform such life-saving tasks as:
- calling 911, barking to alert help, or activating an emergency alert device
- letting first responders in
- standing over an inert handler to protect them from possible danger
- bringing ice packs to lower body temperature
- putting a handler into the recovery position
- getting beneath the handler’s legs to raise blood pressure
- moving dangerous items out of the way if a handler is having a seizure
How Long Does It Take to Train a Service Dog?
As you might suppose, it takes a long time–sometimes up to two years–to train a service dog. It’s also very expensive. Training a service dog can cost upwards of $25,000.
Not every dog that begins training can make the grade, either. Some estimates put the number of failed starts at 50-70 percent.
A good service dog candidate must be confident and calm, able to keep focused and alert, and be eager to please. You might assume that high intelligence is necessary, but that doesn’t always play out. Smart dogs get bored…and creative. You want a dog that is teachable, has a good memory, and will reliably repeat the desired behaviors.
Service dogs begin their training the way many dogs do: learning basic obedience commands. For service dogs, the “3D’s” (duration, distance, and distraction) are of supreme importance. They have to be able to lie still and wait for extended periods, sometimes in very tight spaces, such as under a chair or table.
Public access skills are critical. Service dogs must be nonreactive, so they undergo rigorous desensitization training in order to navigate unfamiliar places, loud noises, strangers, and other things that could be distracting or startling. A dog’s focus must always be on the handler and the task at hand.
Once a dog can demonstrate impeccable control, training to perform tasks for a person with disabilities can finally begin in earnest.
Would You Like to Train Service Dogs?
Training service dogs helps people overcome the limitations of their disabilities, and it’s a worthy career goal, especially for dog lovers. If you already have a solid foundation in dog obedience training and are interested in training service dogs, Animal Behavior College can help you make that next career move. To enroll in ABC’s online program, contact Admissions at 800-795-3294.