DEAR DIDI: I have a wonderful two-year-old Labradoodle that everyone just loves. I would like for him to be certified as a service dog so he can go everywhere with me. How do I go about doing that? – Dog Lover in Ripon, CA
DEAR DOG LOVER: This is a hot topic right now! Service Dogs are amazing animals that work to make life easier for someone that has an ADA recognized disability. The ADA defines a ‘disability’ that qualifies for a Service Dog more narrowly than say, a physician would. A Service Dog has specific training to help directly with the disability of the owner. A classic example would be a dog that is trained to help a blind person navigate from one place to another safely. The relationship between a service dog and his or her handler is commonly referred to as a partnership or a team. The two work together to achieve what, in many cases, was previously impossible for the handler to do independently. Service Dogs are working animals and not pets so they are held to higher standards of grooming, demeanor, and must not react to any distractions while working. True Service Dogs never bark in public for any reason. The owner would never invite people to pet their Service Dog. Working Service Dogs should behave in a way that calls no attention to themselves. Even a legitimate Service Dog can be asked to leave a business for the above reasons.
It can be extremely difficult to accomplish the necessary training on one’s own, so there are organizations that do the required socializing and training for the person in need. Typically, these organizations train for the first 18 months of a dog’s life. The dog then must pass a Public Access test before being called a Service Dog. The disabled person is almost always required to take some courses to help them understand how to best avail themselves of the dog’s training. On average, a Service Dog will only provide six years of assistance to its handler so training is begun at a young age to maximize their length of service. I have seen Service Dogs’ training values in the $20.000 to $30,000 range! That price range can drive someone to attempt the training on their own. Unfortunately, many of these organizations also have wait lists of up to seven years. Some of these organizations have their own breeding program and still have an average 60 percent fail rate. It is rare for a pet dog to be able to successfully become a working Service Dog.
There are many unscrupulous companies on the Internet that will sell someone Service Dog ID’s, vests, or put them on a supposed registry which leads unsuspecting people to think it is a very simple process when, in fact, it is a felony to label your dog a Service Dog if he/she is not specifically trained to help with a legitimate disability. Service Dogs are truly a blessing to those that need them, but it is not enough to say that your dog makes you feel good or that you ‘need him with you.’ If you would still like to investigate the possibilities contact an Animal Behaviorist or qualified dog trainer to help you. You should meticulously document your training in a journal so that if ever called into question, you can show that you are legitimate. Your trainer can assess your needs and the current level of training in your Labradoodle. A recommendation will be made as to how much work, time and money it might take to achieve your goals. A qualified trainer that has experience in training Service Dogs can also execute the Public Access Test when the time comes. Also keep in mind, that if everyone truly loves your dog, as you say, he will no longer get to enjoy the affections of strangers while out working. Service Dogs are not to be petted or distracted from their jobs. This applies at home also. If the dog is not focused on you at all times or is off playing with the kids, then he can’t help you when needed.
It can be a very difficult decision to make for many people once they learn about the true nature of a Service Dog’s life. The rewards for those with legitimate ADA recognized disabilities, however, are immeasurable!
You may want to consider a Therapy Dog job for your dog. This is a very different job where he would go into prearranged facilities and interact with anyone who wishes to pet him and rub his ears. Therapy Dogs are NOT Service Dogs so they do not get to go everywhere with their owners (public access rights).
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.