One in five adults in the United States (approximately 47.5 million people) have reported experiencing some kind of disability. Many of these people are older adults suffering from conditions like arthritis, rheumatism, back pain, and heart disease; however, disability can affect people of all ages.
Whatever your age and disability, a service dog can provide you with a number of both physical and mental benefits. Even if you don’t personally need the help of a service dog, you might also want to consider training your dog to provide support to patients in hospitals and nursing homes.
If you’re interested in training your dog to be a service dog, there are some important things you need to know. Read on to learn the ins and outs of how to start training your dog today.
Benefits of Having a Service Dog
Listed below are some of the most well-known benefits of service dogs for people with disabilities:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Release of calming endorphins like oxytocin
- Reduced physical pain
- Reduced need for medication
- Improved mood and reduced feelings of depression
- Reduced feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Improved communication
- Increased socialization
- Greater feelings of comfort
- Reduced anxiety
- Reduced boredom
- Increased motivation to recover
- Improvements in speech and emotional disorders in children
Who Can Use Service Dogs?
As you can see, therapy and service dogs provide a number of benefits to people with all kinds of needs. The people who most often benefit from service dogs include:
- People with severe allergies
- People with autism who need help calming down, maintaining boundaries, or learning life skills
- People who have balance issues, are in wheelchairs, or experience other physical disabilities and need extra support
- People with diabetes and other medical conditions like hypertension or
- People with epilepsy or seizure disorders
- People who are deaf or blind
- People struggling with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression
- Patients in hospitals who are feeling lonely or isolated
- People who have experienced emotional or physical trauma as a result of a natural disaster
As you can see, a number of people can benefit from having a service dog.
Training a Service Dog
When it comes to training your dog to be a therapy or service dog, you’ll need to follow the guidelines outlined below:
Start with the Basics
First, your dog needs to have mastered foundational skills, including the following:
- Potty training and going potty on command
- Focusing on handler and ignoring distractions
- Canine Good Citizen objectives — accepting friendly strangers, sitting on command, coming when called, behaving politely around other dogs, etc.
You can teach your dog these skills yourself, but it can also be beneficial to work with a professional dog trainer, especially if you want your dog to learn these skills fairly quickly.
In addition to making sure your dog has mastered foundational skills, you’ll need to have them assessed by a vet to ensure they’re in good health. The vet should screen for conditions like arthritis and diabetes, and keep your dog up to date on all their vaccinations.
It’s also best for service dogs to be neutered or spayed. Neutered males tend to be less aggressive, and females don’t work as well when they’re in heat.
Service dogs need have a specific type of personality — somewhere between submissive and aggressive. They need to be calm and cool and able to ignore distractions. But, they also need to be alert and responsive so that they can provide the services their owner needs.
Take some time to evaluate your dog’s temperament and personality to determine whether or not they’re a good fit to be a service dog.
It can also be helpful to get a doggy DNA test done. This will help you identify your dog’s most common breed characteristics.
Find a Trainer
Most people can handle basic dog training on their own, but, when it comes to teaching your dog the specific skills he or she needs in order to be a service dog (noticing signs of seizures, detecting drops in blood sugar, etc.), it’s best to work with a professional.
Working with a professional will help you save time and frustration as you work to teach your dog the skills they need to do their job effectively.
Remember, working with a trainer doesn’t mean you don’t have to be an active participant. If you want your dog to be a good service dog, you need to take an active role in their training and work with the professional to help them understand what’s expected of them.
Understand the Time Commitment
Generally speaking, about 120 hours over four to six months (or more — sometimes it takes up to 24 months) of training is required for service dogs to be ready to handle what’s expected of them.
Even when you’re working with a professional, training your dog to be a service dog isn’t a simple process. Make sure you’re up to the time commitment and are willing to put in the effort to make sure your dog is equipped to handle the demands of their job as a service dog.
Complete (and Pass) a Public Access Test
Once your dog is performing well in training sessions and has met all of the trainer’s requirements they’ll need to pass a public access test.
This proves that they’re capable of handling themselves appropriately in public places. Some specific things that are expected of dogs during these tests include:
- Not exhibiting any aggressive behavior (biting, growling, barking, etc.)
- Only urinating or defecating on command
- Limiting sniffing behaviors
- Not soliciting food or affections from strangers
- Minimizing excitement and hyperactivity
Register and Equip
Finally, once your dog has passed all necessary tests, you’ll need to register them and purchase any equipment that is required for them to do their job.
Purchasing a special vest to indicate that your dog is a service dog is very helpful and can clear up confusion in public places. You may also need other equipment if your dog is going to provide physical support to you or someone else with physical limitations.
The Importance of Legitimacy
As you can see, a lot goes into registering a dog as a service or therapy dog. There are many people who legitimately need their service dogs and have put in a lot of work to make sure they’re capable of meeting their needs.
At the same time, there are many people who have obtained fake service dog credentials solely because they want to keep their dog with them. This exploitation is unethical and is detrimental to the well-being of legitimate service dogs.
If you want your dog to be a service dog, make sure you’re willing to put the time in and train them properly. Keep these tips and guidelines in mind as you get started, and you’ll be well on your way to teaching your dog the skills they must have to provide physical and mental health support to someone who needs it.