Golden Retriever

Is a Service Dog Right For You?

7 Things to Consider Before Getting a Service Dog

Golden Retriever in Service Dog Harness

I have a service dog for POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).  Merlin is trained to assist me with mobility related tasks.  He can pick up things I drop on the ground, assist me with my balance issues, and he can provide deep pressure therapy to help bring my heart rate down.  Working with Merlin has improved my life in countless ways.  Because of him, I am able to do some of the things I never used to think about before I became disabled.

Service dogs are incredible creatures.  They can help their disabled partners work, grocery shop, run errands, navigate the world around them, and so much more.  As amazing as these dogs are, there can be serious challenges to being part of a service dog team.  Here are seven things to consider if you are thinking about getting a service dog.


1. Service dogs can be incredibly expensive

Golden Retriever in the drivers seatWhether you get your dog from a program or train your own dog, service dogs can be an incredibly expensive undertaking.  It can cost upwards of $20,000 to get a service dog from a program (though fundraising may offset some of the cost).  If you decide to owner train, you have to consider the cost of the dog, training courses, transportation for public access training, so on and so forth.

Once you have the dog itself, there are additional costs to consider.  Service dogs require excellent veterinary care on a regular basis, treats, food, training classes, toys, specialized gear, and the list goes on and on.  Few, if any, of these costs can be reimbursed through health insurance (or pet insurance).

2. It takes a long time to train a service dog

Golden retriever puppy stares at a tennis ballPrograms have waitlists of at least 1-2 years before you are matched with a dog.  Owner training is not necessarily faster than acquiring a service dog through a program.  Most handlers who opt to train their own service dog are not professional dog trainers and are not able to devote 24/7 to training.  If you are owner training a puppy, it can take 1-2 years before your dog is reliably tasking and mature enough to be considered a service dog.  Prior to that, it’s month after month of daily training sessions, classes, care etc. and all on top of the energy spent dealing with your disability.


3. You will experience access issues

Service Dog at Craig Ranch PlaygroundIn the US, service dogs are allowed to accompany their handler almost anywhere the general public can go with very few exceptions.  Unfortunately, the laws are not very well understood by the general public, which means businesses, restaurants, hotels, Ubers, etc. may try to prevent you and your dog from entering or ask you to remove your dog.  You will need to prepare for how you will handle these scenarios as they pop up.  You will need to understand the state and federal laws that pertain to service dogs and may need to explain them to total strangers.

The first access issue we experienced was at a museum. One of the volunteers confronted us and was adamant that Merlin was not allowed inside of the exhibits.  We decided to leave and reach out to the coordinator of the museum.  She assured us that all of the volunteers would be re-trained regarding service dogs and access laws. I’m hopeful that future service dog teams will not have any issues when they visit, but I will never forget how that experience made me feel.

4. Service dogs require a lot of work

Merlin and Amber at Bad Water BasinTraining is an ongoing process. You will be working with your dog every single day practicing and bonding. Service dogs need more regular grooming then pet dogs do.  I normally bathe my dog once or twice a month and brush him daily. As he will be going into the public on a regular basis, he needs to be presentable.

Merlin does item retrieval for me so his oral health is crucial.  He needs regular teeth brushing and dental cleanings. Service dogs need to be cleaned up after, which can also be physically demanding. They need exercise and mental stimulation to keep them in tip top shape.

5. Service dogs attract attention

Service Dog at Wetlands ParkPeople will be curious, especially kids. They will stop you to ask about your dog or your disability.  If you have an invisible disability, they will ask you if you are training your dog for someone else.  They will ask to pet your dog and some will just go ahead and do so without asking.

I’ve had kids run up to Merlin and throw their arms around him to give him a hug, or grab his tail as we pass in the grocery store.  All before their parents could intervene.  Luckily for us, Merlin is used to being around kids as he and my toddler are best buddies.

The weirdest interactions we’ve encountered have come from adults. A grown (and possibly very drunk) man barked at Merlin as we were passing by.  Most of the time people are very friendly, but it happens pretty much everywhere we go, which leads me to my next point…

6. Running errands (or pretty much any task, really) will take longer.

Packing for your outing, potty and water breaks, loading in and out of the car, all of it adds up to a lot of extra time.  Even putting Merlin’s gear on and checking to make sure it’s fitting on him correctly takes a few minutes.  Navigating through crowded places can add time onto your day as well.  Everything takes longer when you are part of a service dog team.

7. Service dogs cannot provide round the clock care.

Handsome Golden RetrieverThey need time off to just be a dog.  They may become ill and need a few days of rest.  There will be times when you are not able (or it’s just not convenient) to bring your service dog with you.

There may also come a day when your near-constant companion is no longer able to work due to their own health issues or drive.  Service dogs are living creatures and though their loyalty is unwavering, there will come a day when you need to retire your service dog.

Service dogs are incredible creatures with unmatched loyalty to their human companions. Caring for your service dog can be very rewarding, but also takes a lot of time, money, energy, and resources.  You have weigh your own personal circumstances with the challenges that can come from being part of a service dog team.

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