Golden Retriever in the drivers seat

How to get a Service Dog

Service dogs can provide support and assistance to people with disabilities.  They can help their handlers lead a more independent and fulfilling life. If you are considering getting a service dog, you first need to determine if you are eligible.  Requirements can vary from location to location so it is important to know the laws for your region or country.  In the United States, individuals must have a disability as defined by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and their disability must interfere significantly with their ability to participate in activities like driving, walking, sleeping, eating, etc.

Its a good idea to consult with your care team to determine if a service dog is right for you.  While you are not required to carry a doctor’s note around with you, you may need the assistance of a health care provider to qualify for certain service dog training programs or to request reasonable accommodations for housing or employment.  You can read our post here: Is a Service Dog Right For You? to help you determine if a service dog is the best method to mitigate your disability.

Once you have decided a service dog is the best fit for you, you will need to consider the kinds of tasks you will need your dog to perform.  Service dogs are incredible creatures and help their handlers in so many ways.  Service dogs can pull wheel chairs, press elevator or door buttons, retrieve items like medication, alert to the presence of allergens in food, changing blood glucose levels, or oncoming medical events, and so much more.

a light golden retriever in his service dog harness

There are two ways to get a service animal in the United States: going through a program that provides trained animals or owner training your own service dog.  Each option comes with challenges and obstacles.  Service dog training programs can provide handlers with a dog that has already had the fundamentals of task and public access training completed.  Service dog training programs will often select the dog that the handler will receive. They often provide ongoing training and support throughout the working career of the animal.  Owner-trained service dogs are often trained by the disabled handler or their immediate family members.  This approach can lead to a very strong bond between a handler and their dog.  Unfortunately, there is always the risk that the dog will wash out of service dog work.

Program Dogs

Service dog training programs can be very hit or miss.  Raising a service dog can take two years and cost upwards of $20,000.  Some organizations charge to place service dogs, and some will require for you to fundraise to help offset the cost of your dog.  Programs may specialize in training dogs for people with specific disabilities or special populations like children or veterans.  You will want to find a reputable organization in your area as you may need to travel back and forth for training sessions.

Unfortunately, there are scams out there charging exorbitant amounts of money for dogs that are under trained or otherwise unfit for service dog work.  I recommend finding a program accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) if at all possible.

A garden from a golden retriever's point of view.

Waitlists for programs can be long (upwards of 2 years or more) and requirements for different programs can be very restrictive.  For example, some programs will not place a dog in a household with other dogs, etc.  If you can qualify or a program exists in your area, this is the most reliable method to get a service dog.

Owner Training

The other route, owner training, comes with its own risks.  Service dogs have to maintain a high level of excellence to be successful and not every dog is up to the task.  Service dogs need to be able to work in a variety of environments.  They cannot be reactive towards people or other dogs and have to maintain focus on their handlers.  They need to be comfortable performing tasks in noisy, crowded spaces.

While service dogs can be any breed, the dog must be in good health and be able to physically handle the tasks needed by the handler.  A dachshund, for example, would make a great allergen-detection dog but would not be able to guide their handler around Costco.  Popular breeds for service dogs are golden retrievers, labs, and standard poodles.  Service dog trainers often say “need before breed”.

Golden Retriever in Service Dog Harness

Just as not every dog is cut out to be a service dog, not every handler is able to train their own service dog.  Most owner-trainers begin training from the time their prospect is a puppy.  Puppies need constant care and attention.  They can be incredibly destructive through their teething phases.  Before they can begin public access work they require housebreaking, obedience, and socialization training.  It can take a long time for your dog to begin their working career.  Program dogs often go through 1.5-2 years of training with dedicated, professional dog trainers.  Owner trained dogs may take even longer depending on the time and energy you dedicate to training and your dog’s natural aptitude for learning tasks.  It takes a long time before your puppy will be able to reliably assist you.

It takes a surprising amount of mental and physical energy to raise a pet puppy.  The stakes are even higher when the puppy is destined to be a working dog.  I owner-trained Merlin with support from a program.  We attended weekly group training sessions for a year and practiced daily in between classes.  Dog training is a very physical undertaking.  There is a lot of standing, bending, reaching, walking and movement involved, all of which had become more difficult for me due to my disability.  It can be mentally challenging as well.  Along the way, I had a lot of doubts about whether Merlin or I was truly up to the task.  Thankfully I had the support of my family as we went through this process.

Merlin and Amber at Bad Water Basin

Once you have decided that a service dog is the right fit for you, getting a service dog becomes the next hurdle.  Whether you obtain your service dog from an ADI accredited program or opt to owner train your own service dog, the process can be lengthy and expensive.  In the end, getting your well-trained service dog can be life-changing.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below.  You can also follow Merlin on Tiktok to learn more about his journey!

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