Some of the most compassionate and understanding animals around are service dogs. The heroes of the animal kingdom, service dogs are there for you when others can’t be. Their expertise ranges from curbing mental illness to aiding in physical therapy.
But, how do you get a service dog?
We’ve created a guide on how an individual in need can go about adopting one of these work dogs. Although seemingly daunting, the process is quite straightforward.
Depending on your desired reason for having a service dog, the steps to getting one are slightly different. Below, we break down the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals, then jump into the adoption process for each.
How to Get a Service Dog: The Overall Process
There are many more steps to getting a service dog than there are for an ESA certification. There are specific requirements that must be met, as well as hoops that need to be jumped through.
Below we’ve mapped out everything you need to know while in the service dog adoption process. Although long, it can be well worth it for an individual in need.
1. Assess Your Situation
While worth every penny, service dogs can be a large financial investment. For this reason, you’ll want to be sure that you will, in fact, benefit from having one. The ADA is a great resource to look at when determining if your situation equates to needing a service dog.
Typically, there are set conditions that make someone eligible for a service dog. Some of these conditions include:
- Hearing loss
- Vision loss
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
In all cases, the severity of each condition will determine service dog eligibility. For example, an individual with epilepsy must experience at least one seizure a month to qualify for a service dog. Doctors can help accommodate exceptions in certain situations.
It’s also important to understand you will need to care for your dog as well. A service dog will almost always live with their owner, so your house should be tidy and physically dog-friendly. Note service dogs can live in any buildings regardless of no-pet rules — remember, the same goes for ESAs.
2. Determine the Best Breed for You
Once you have determined a service dog is right for you, the next task is determining the appropriate breed. Again, almost any dog can technically be a service dog with proper training, however, some are considerably better choices than others.
- Labrador and golden retrievers are the most common service dog breed.
- Collies and German shepherds can also make great service dogs.
These animals generally have a perfect combination of loving temperament and high intelligence, making them excellent service breeds.
Understand that service dogs should be physically capable of handling tasks that dogs don’t always need to. Some of these tasks can include:
- Reaching for supplies in high areas
- Helping support their human and
- Pulling/pushing big loads
While this might seem like a lot to factor into your decision, don’t worry. The best way to determine which dog breed is best for you is simply by talking with a doctor and vet. They will put you in the right direction and let you know which breed will be best for your specific condition.
3. Choose Your Provider
This step may come before step two in some cases, but around the same time as finding a breed, you’ll need to find a service dog provider. While it is possible to train your own service dog, financially and time-wise it’s usually less than feasible.
Service dog providers are a great alternative. These agencies typically train service dogs and then put them up for adoption after training is complete. On the other hand, there are agencies willing to train a dog you already own — but keep in mind this process can take years to complete.
Below you can find places to start your search. Research multiple providers to ensure you’re finding your best fit.
Service Dog Provider Resources
Providers for Veterans
Providers for the Blind
Providers for the Physically Impaired
If possible, talk with the agency in person or at least over the phone. Ask questions about the training process and what sort of disability training they specialize in. Once you’re comfortable with a provider, submit your application and get ready for your new best friend!
4. Gather Appropriate Supplies
As mentioned, while your dog is a worker, they will still need a place to stay — i.e. your house! This is an exciting time because not only will you have a personal helper, you’ll also get a new, loving roommate. To ensure your new dog is comfortable in their new home, gather essential materials before their first night. These may include:
- Leash (although, many service dogs have specialized leashes)
5. Get to Know Your Pup!
Don’t forget that your new service dog is also a good friend! Take time out of your day to play and bond with your pup. It’s important for them to trust you as much as for you to trust them. Especially at the beginning of your relationship, taking time to spend with your dog will pay off immensely in the long run.
In addition, you will more than likely need to attend their training sessions. Service dog agencies aim to solidify a bond between a dog and their owner, so they will carve out lessons for your dog and you to attend together.
Regardless, during this initial time, remember there will be some trial and error. You and your pup will get to know how each of you like to work, move and live. This is a normal part of service dog owning and is momententary.
Emotional Service Animal vs. Service Dog
Helper dogs are usually separated into two different categories: Emotional Service Animals (ESAs) and Service Dogs (SDs). Both have unique benefits they can offer an individual.
Unlike service dogs, emotional service animals don’t require any specific training. The primary goal of an ESA is to provide mental comfort to its owner. However, while it may seem like any sort of well-behaved animal fits this mold, certification is still required.
An owner must present a medically-backed need for an ESA. Any domesticated animal can be approved given vet and medical professional approval. Once these boxes have been checked, there are many companies that will award an ESA certification — ask your vet for suggestions on where to obtain this.
Service dogs, on the other hand, go through a much more rigorous process. Think of this training as a puppy graduate school. From physical training to mental priming, SDs can take years to train. This sort of work is usually done by professionals, however, it is possible to train your own service dog. In both cases, the owner will be present at some training sessions as well.
This license process is so rigorous because these dogs essentially become someone's caretaker from both a mental and physical perspective. ESAs don’t aid in physical rehabilitation, so this alone cuts years out of the training process.
Specialized training makes service dogs cost anywhere from $10,000 - $50,000 in price. Luckily, certain insurance plans will help cover this cost. Be sure to talk to your provider before starting the process of adopting a service dog.
The bottom line is emotional service dogs are meant to be a companion in both fun and health, whereas a service dog is a working animal trained to perform medical tasks — similar to how police dogs help officers.
When ESAs Are Best
Emotional Service Animals are best for those with no physical disabilities.
If someone is in need of a companion to help curb mentally conditions like anxiety or depression, ESAs can be a good option. Not only are they already your companion, they can also get places normal pups can’t. Airplanes and some public areas are open to ESAs. In addition, ESAs qualify to live in housing that may otherwise ban pets.
This being said, it’s essential to always have a record of your animal’s emotional service certification on hand at all times. While officials can’t ask why you have the dog, they can ask if the dog is legally certified. A physician's note will usually be required as well.
Alternative Ways to Get a Service Dog
There is always the option to train your own service dog. The training process is long yet standard for each respective condition. When training a service dog the trainer is required to perform the tasks they’re teaching the dog — this is the main concern with this method. Joint training with another person is highly recommended for training your dog personally.
Another option is to adopt an older, already-trained service dog. The benefit to this approach is that your dog will have already “been in the field,” making it an experience service provider. However, this can also be a downside. Service dogs are specially trained for their specific owner — so extra care should go into adopting an older service dog.
To mitigate this problem, spend lots of time with different dogs to find one that will suit you best.
Who Can Have a Service Dog?
You’ll need to qualify for a service dog to partake in the adoption and/or training process of one. The ADA updates its requirements frequently, so visit their site for the latest information on specifics on qualifications.
The qualification process can involve meeting with doctors and the agency. This isn’t to pick and choose owners, but rather to determine if a service dog will suit you best and narrow down what type will give you the best treatment.
As mentioned, different service dogs are trained for different types of service dogs. A seeing-eye dog will be great at navigating a human, but may not soothe a veteran with PTSD like a mental health service dog can.
Below we get into specifics for the specific conditions that usually allow for a service dog.
Service Dogs for Physical Disabilities
Those with physical impairments are paired with a seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs or general service dogs. These dogs specialize in helping owners get to where they are going in a safe way. Note these dogs aren’t GPS units. In fact, they work together with the owner to maneuver to a destination.
Service dogs in this category are also expected to fetch and handle equipment/supplies for their owners.
Because they are physical service providers, these dogs work with rather than for their owners, the bonding process takes place much earlier than with other service dogs. Owners will usually train alongside these dogs so they can build a relationship from the start.
In addition, these service dogs are taught how to disobey when needed. This is a key component of service dog life, but especially with seeing-eye dogs. It’s essential these pups know how to pivot when something is about to go or currently is wrong.
The best example of this is if an owner starts walking across the street even though the light is red — a properly trained seeing eye dog will let them know it’s not safe.
Conditions that usually warrant dogs in this category are:
- Limb loss
- Limited dexterity
Service Dogs for Mental Disorders
Psychiatric service dogs are used for those with mental impairment. These dogs are different from emotional support animals. They learn procedures to help curb panic attacks and can predict if an owner is going to have a breakdown. Psychiatric service dogs are also taught to read a public space to look for possible stress triggers.
Psychiatric service dogs are also there for individuals to perform tasks that may be difficult otherwise. This equates to an emphasis on stress management training in the dog itself. These service dogs don’t only provide emotional support, and in fact, mainly work on help an individual get to a place where their owner can calm down or fetch materials aid in this as well.
Service Dogs for Veterans
Veterans suffering from PTSD are common recipients of service dogs. Many times, dogs are trained to identify warning signs of a PTSD-related attack and then act accordingly. Navigating busy, loud and tightly-packed areas are also part of a veteren’s service dog.
For veterans, there are specific providers of service dogs. The dogs from these agencies are usually trained by veterans themselves in hopes of increasing the bond between service dog and eventual owner. Below are some places to start your search for this type of companion:
Q: What Kind Of Tasks Do Service Dogs Perform?
A: Service dogs will help owners do anything from crossing a street to mitigating a panic attack. Service dogs specifically help owners that are unable to do day-to-day functions without assistance. These dogs can even be trained to contact authorities during emergencies.
Q: How Much Do Service Dogs Cost?
A: It depends! Some agencies give them to owners for free, others have scholarships available and sometimes they can cost $15,000. Finding the appropriate provider for your situation is crucial.
Q: How Can I Be Sure The Service Dog Is Legitimate?
A: Unfortunately it is illegal to ask for documentation for service dogs. Each training agency will have a slightly different process, so due diligence is required.
Q: Do Service Animals Have To Wear a Vest Identifying Them?
Q: What Is The Difference Between an Emotional Service and a Service Dog?
A: An ESA is used for an individual who needs comfort and companionship to soothe mental disorders. Anxiety is a common disorder someone will get an ESA for. Service dogs, on the other hand, are classified as working dogs and go through immense amounts of training and are given more access rights than an ESA. Service dogs also specialize in treating a specific mental or physical disorder.
Q: Who Can Qualify For a Service Dog?
A: Many times it’s a case-by-case basis. An individual who shows a need for a service dog relative to their situation will usually be eligible. Different insurance companies may also vary in what they cover under policies.
Q: Can Only Dogs Be ESAs?
A: No! Most animals can be certified to be an emotional service animal. Common animals include dogs, cats and rabbits.
Q: What Type Of Dogs Are Service Dogs?
A: Technically any dog can be a service dog. However, they will need to perform mental and physical tasks that some breeds are usually unable to handle. Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers are all common service dog breeds.
Q: Are Any Breeds Excluded From Service Dog Eligibility?
When in doubt, ask your doctor about adopting a service dog. They can provide assistance in ways nothing else can, but are also a serious commitment. ESAs are less of a financial and time investment, however, they are granted less rights than service dogs.
Whether a service dog or ESA, it’s crucial to prepare for health problems your dog themself can experience. Learn about the way we’re helping owners prepare for the future and live with their companion for years to come.