|What You Should Know
There are many important points to consider before bringing a Service Dog into your life. On this page, we have covered what we feel will get prospective clients off to a good start on the path to becoming a Service Dog/Handler team. If you are considering a Service Dog for yourself or a loved one, please read through the information we've included here and visit our links page for additional information.
Despite the fact that many people enjoy and benefit from having a Service Animal, it should be noted that this option may not be the best choice or even beneficial for everyone. For example, if you're not really a 'dog person,' a Service Dog might not be the best option for you. It might be necessary to consider other resources or assistive technology. Even for animal lovers, there are some important considerations including the time, cost, emotional investment involved in caring for and working with the animal. It is also important to understand your own needs and the needs/limitations of the particular type of Service Animal you are considering.
In short, choosing whether or not to get a Service Animal is a very personal decision, one in which you must consider your needs, desires, and lifestyle. So, this overview of Service Dog consumer information is not to provide you with a definitive answer to the question: "Is a Service Dog right for me?", but rather serves as a starting point in your inquiry and search process. Please note that this information is geared more towards an education of the overall process involved with any Service Dog program rather than specifically what is involved with qualifying and obtaining a dog from Shore Service Dogs. That way you will have a much clearer picture of what might be involved should you decide to apply with SSD or any of the other Assistance Dog organizations.
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The cost involved usually includes an application fee, a fee for equipment/registration for training (which with some organizations can often be reimbursed in supplies and equipment for the dog upon completion of its training), and sometimes a fee for the dog itself. This cost can range anywhere from several hundred dollars to $5,000 or $6,000. Private trainers may charge for their services. Qualified individuals interested in obtaining an Assistance Dog or wishing to train a dog as an Assistance Dog may be eligible for "scholarships" through various state agencies and local civic organizations. The estimated annual cost of maintaining an Assistance Dog (including food, supplies, and veterinary care) averages around $1,600 but this should only be used as a low-end estimate as a Service Dog is a working dog and therefore would require higher maintenance than a dog kept strictly as a pet.
There are generally also costs related to traveling to and attending training. For example, a recipient may have to travel to another city or state to attend training/obtain the animal. While some organizations have dorms or apartments for recipients to stay in, this is not always the case. Sometimes volunteers or puppy raisers will open their homes to recipients. Hotels in the area might also be willing to offer discounted rates to potential graduates. Check with the organization and past recipients for ideas and suggestions.
It is important to consider how you will go about covering ongoing costs for the animal once you get it. Who will pay for the food, veterinary bills, and other supplies necessary to care for the dog on a long-term basis? It is important to remember that while the initial costs might be very low, there can be significant costs involved in caring for the dog on a long-term basis.
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Having a Service Animal means not only covering the costs associated with it, but caring for the animal on a daily basis. Consider how a dog will fit into your lifestyle: when will you walk the dog? When will you groom the animal? Is there a place to exercise the dog that is accessible to you? How will you feed the dog? Will the other members of your family deal well with the dog? While these issues are not insurmountable, they are things agencies will ask potential recipients to consider. Many organizations understand that an individual with a disability may need assistance completing the tasks necessary to care for the animal, and do not necessarily require that all care be done by the recipient. However, they often stress the importance of recipients being involved in every aspect of caring for the animal. For example, a graduate may ask his/her personal assistant to clean the dog's ears, but it is important that the graduate be present during this time. Oftentimes, veterinarians or stores such as Petco will offer discounts or free services for Service Animals.
Another important consideration early in this process is both your expectations of a dog and your expectations of a potential agency/individual trainer that you will be working with. What are the types of tasks you are hoping the dog will be able to perform? For example, would you like the dog to assist in pulling your wheelchair? Under what circumstances is this not possible? If you would like the dog to assist in picking up and carrying items, you may want to gain a better understanding of what the animal will and will not to be able to pickup. Don't be afraid to ask questions. It is important that you have a realistic goal of what a Service Dog might be able to do for you.
Keep in mind though that it is also very important that you realize that this is a living and breathing animal, not a piece of equipment that works flawlessly every time. Will you be able to deal with the stresses of keeping the dog in reinforcement training once you've partnered with a Service Dog? Have you taken to heart that these dogs are not pets and can't be allowed to let their training lapse even for "minor infractions"? Just as we humans would prefer to play rather than work and we lose the ability to do something if we haven't practiced it, so do these canines. While this analogy is not perfect, imagine having a very well behaved but intelligent and curious 6-year-old child with you every minute of every day in every environment. You can just imagine what that might be like. Are you prepared to take on YOUR responsibilities to make sure a Service Dog is able to do theirs? While a Service Dog is an incredible help to those who utilize them, it requires a dedication that not everyone can add to their busy lives or health status. If you feel that the stresses of the responsibilities would be difficult for your emotional or physical health, then you should reconsider the route of a Service Animal, as it wouldn't be beneficial for you. The ultimate goal is to make your life easier, not more difficult.
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Selecting an Agency
Selecting an agency can be a difficult process. There are a number of agencies throughout the United States that train all types of Service Dogs. Who you decide to apply with depends on a number of factors. For example, are you interested in working with a smaller, more local/regional organization? Or, do you feel more comfortable with a larger, national agency?
There seems to be advantages and disadvantages to each of these options. With the smaller agency, the wait for a Service Dog may be shorter, you may not have to travel as far to train with the animal, and you may get more individualized attention. But as generally they do not have the donation/grant resources that the larger facilities have, they may often require recipients to pay a fee for the dog or part of the training costs. In addition, these organizations may obtain many of their potential Service Dogs from shelters. While they carefully screen both the health and the temperament of each of the dogs they place, there is still the unknown background that is not present with a dog that has been bred and raised by the larger organizations.
The application process differs depending on the particular agency. Sometimes agencies require those who want to apply for a Service Dog to submit a letter explaining their interest/expectations of a Service Animal prior to receiving an application. Other times, individuals may simply submit an application. The application may ask individuals if they've had pets, the qualities they're looking for an animal, how they will care for the animal, and their expectations of the animal. Interviews may be conducted in a potential recipient's home or at the agency's training facilities. This gives the agency a better idea of whether or not candidates are suitable. There may be an opportunity to tour the facilities, gather information from previous graduates of the program, or informally see a Service Dog in action. In any event, this is the perfect time to ask additional questions. Once the application is accepted, the candidate's name is placed on a waiting list. When a suitable dog is found, trained, and ready to be placed, the individual is contacted.
Prior to a dog being placed with a recipient, it typically goes through anywhere from 3 to 32 months of training. On average, however, dogs are trained for 12 to 24 months. During this time, they not only learn the basic commands - such as sit and stay - but also more advanced commands. While training methods and duration differs, Assistance Dogs International (ADI) has developed minimal standards for training Service Dogs, hearing dogs, guide dogs, and social/therapy dogs. In many cases, dogs usually spend a portion of their training with a volunteer family. The family cares for and socializes the dog, taking it places that a potential recipient may visit. This can include a trip to the movies, the grocery store, and even on vacation. Although Service Animals are allowed in places of public accommodation under the ADA, each state has its own regulations regarding Assistance Dogs-in-training and volunteer handlers (vs. professional trainers). Some states afford volunteer handlers more legal rights and protection than others. As SSD does all the training of their dogs rather than utilizing foster families, we do not have the difficulties of denial of access that a non-professional volunteer has. As such, we make sure to expose them to as many environments and situations as possible during their stay with us.
Once a dog has had both basic and advanced training, it is matched with an individual with a disability. Each agency has its own process and criteria for making a match; however, the match is always made with both the recipient and the dog in mind. This phase of training can last anywhere from five days to three weeks. Sometimes it is done at the agency's facilities, while other times it is done in the individual's home. Training at a facility provides structure, additional resources, and other benefits, such as the social support of other recipients and the expertise of additional trainers working at the facility. Training at an individual's home can provide an additional sense of security for the recipient. This method also allows the dog to become acclimated to the environment in which they will work on a regular basis.
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While the ADA does not require Service Animals to be certified, many agencies may require graduate teams to undergo public access tests. This involves ensuring that the individual can safely handle the dog in a variety of public situations, and that the dog behaves appropriately. Assistance Dogs International has developed a public access test used/adapted by many service providers throughout the United States. SSD does require a public access test for placement of their dogs. This is to make sure that both the dog and the handler are able to deal with everyday life in a calm and safe manner for both themselves and for those around them.
While getting an assistance dog can change your life in wonderful ways; it is a major commitment. Careful planning now will ensure that you and your assistance dog will be a happy team for many years to come. Knowing all of your options is the first step. If you opt to obtain a dog from an established providing organization, ask questions and consider all aspects before choosing the program. Do not give up if one provider does not accept you or cannot accommodate your needs, as each provider has different requirements and does things differently.
The following provider checklist contains many of the questions/items you may want to consider. It may be helpful to make a copy of the list for each provider that you interview.
Agency Name: ________________________________________________________
Contact Person: _______________________________________________________
* How much will assistance dog cost?
* Is there an application fee or other types of fees?
* What breeds are used?
* Where does the organization get its dogs?
* What is the minimum age of a recipient?
* Does the recipient do the training, or does the provider?
* Does training occur at home or in a facility?
* How long is the dog in training before being placed with the recipient?
* How long is training for the recipient and the dog as a team?
* What geographical area does the provider serve?
* Will the program consider applicants with multiple disabilities?
* Will they consider training an individual's own dog as assistance dog?
* What is the waiting period for a dog?
* Does the program award ownership of the dog to the recipient upon certification?
* What are the trainer's qualifications?
* Is the facility accessible to your physical needs?
* Does the agency provide lodging for recipients during training?