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Service Dog Training: Owner vs. Program Training

A blonde woman training her big black and tan dog.
Dr. Erica Irish author of service dog training: owner training vs. program training

There are many people who have physical or mental disabilities and could benefit from the assistance of a Service Dog. They can perform numerous tasks and are an essential part of how people can complete everyday functions. 

Where do Service Dogs come from? How can you go about getting one, and what kind of training is involved to become a Service Dog?

What is a service dog?

Service dogs are dogs who are trained to perform specific physical tasks. They aid people with physical or mental disabilities, but the distinction between a Service dog (SD) and an Emotional Support Animal (ESA is that SDs have physical abilities whereas ESAs do not. Instead, ESAs provide comfort to their owners.

Service dogs are not technically pets, but your pet can become a service dog as long as he is proper training and can work in a busy public area without becoming easily distracted. Because service dogs are not designated as pets, they can go anywhere that you go. This includes grocery stores and shopping malls. ESAs are allowed on airplanes and in “no pets allowed” housing, but they cannot go into public places.

From a legal standpoint, only dogs and miniature horses can be considered service animals. There are virtually no restrictions on animal species that can be trained for Emotional Support purposes.

Service dogs can be trained to perform any number of physical tasks. Most people think of the kinds of SDs that are trained to help lead the blind. Others can be trained to detect seizures or panic attacks before they occur. These service dogs may nuzzle you gently or try to lie down on top of you.

Service dogs can even notify diabetic people when their blood sugar is low. PTSD sufferers can also benefit from service dogs, but if the dog is only for comfort/calming and does not perform something physical like face-licking or nudging, then he is considered an ESA and not an SD.

Service dogs are not legally required to be registered. In fact, there is no official licensing for service dogs, but having some form of identification such as a work vest and leash can let people know at a glance that your service dog is working. This should discourage people from trying to pet your SD because he does not need to be distracted while on the job. If you are out in public and someone questions the validity of your SD, they are only allowed to ask two questions:

  1. Does your dog perform a physical task for your disability
  2. What does he physically do?  

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Owner-trained service animals

When acquiring a service dog, some people may wish to have their own personal dog to become trained. The benefit of having an owner-trained service dog is that you will already have an established bond, and this bond will become stronger with close training.

Training can be difficult at first because you will need to learnhow to train your dog, and it can be tricky to find the right way at first. There is a higher risk of failure for owner-trained SDs compared to professionally trained SDs.

Service dogs from training programs and organizations can be very expensive, and they are not covered by human health insurance which is why they are an out-of-pocket expense for the owners who need them. Owner-training tends to be a more cost-effective option.

While professionally trained animals go through one to two years of training, your dog’s training time is highly variable. You will also need to ensure that your dog has the right temperament for this kind of work. Excitable dogs can become easily distracted while on the job, and dogs who are aggressive towards people and other animals should not be trained for service work.

Program-trained service animals

Professional organizations will pick specific breeds of dogs to work with because their temperaments are usually predictable. German Shepherds are popular work dogs and have traditionally been trained as seeing-eye dogs.

Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are two of the most popular breeds in the United States because they are quite smart and can learn many tasks, and they have a very calm demeanor which is perfect for many disabled persons.

Training programs begin when the “students” are very young puppies, so the first one to two years of their lives are spent away from their future owner. However, there are some programs that include owners in the final phases of training so that the owner can learn how to interact with their service dog. In a way, the new owner needs some training, too!

Professionally-trained SDs are very expensive because they go through intense training and are publicly and privately tested before going to live with their owners. Service dogs can cost anywhere from $15,000 to 30,000 depending on the level of work involved.

If you cannot afford one and applying for a loan isn’t an option, you can apply for a grant through organizations like Assistance Dogs International and Service Dogs for America. They are also a tax-deductible expense in the United States and Canada.

Training for Your Service Dog

Without service dogs, many people wouldn’t be able to carry out daily essential tasks by themselves. Service dogs can go out into the public with you, and they are diligent workers! There are pros and cons to training your own SD vs. purchasing a professionally-trained SD, and so you will need to think carefully before considering which course to pursue. 

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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine

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