So You Think You Want A Service Dog?
Service dogs are some of the most amazing working dogs out there. From alerting to low glucose levels and seizures to helping their handlers bring in groceries, they bring newfound independence to many disabled individuals. But having a service dog is more complicated than meets the eye. Below are some things to consider before deciding if a service dog is the right choice for you:
First off, service dogs are medical equipment trained to help disabled individuals mitigate a legal disability as defined by the American Disabilities Act. This means that if in order to have a service dog, you need to have a disability that directly significantly affects your ability to perform everyday tasks like waking up, getting dressed, running errands, doing house chores, etc. It is important to keep in mind that disabilities are not all physical; disability can take many forms. For some, it means they are hard of hearing, hard of seeing, or mobility impaired. For others, it could mean depression, anxiety, or other psychological disabilities. And for others still, this could mean being neurodivergent. If this is not you, then a service dog is not right for you.
If that last paragraph applies to you, the next thing to consider is what it means to have a service dog. While service dogs are often a lifeline for disabled individuals, they are living, breathing medical equipment that require food, exercise, grooming, vet visits, and more. They are not only a financial commitment, but also a time commitment. It is important for service dogs to have days off and time to decompress after working long hours, and VERY important for them to have time to just be a dog. Imagine working 24/7, without any down time, without any Netflix, or vacation. Sounds miserable, right? Dogs who are worked without adequate time to be a dog often burn out and end up retiring early. This is why it is important to understand that while service dogs are helpful, they are dogs at the end of the day and will require things that all pets require. If the time and monetary commitment don't fit with your lifestyle, a service dog is not the right fit for you.
The next thing to consider is the lifestyle change it takes to have a service dog as your medical equipment. They are adaptable, versatile, and capable of so much, At the same time, they are like traveling with a toddler. You'll need to give them adequate potty breaks when working; make sure they get plenty of food and water breaks, especially during long days; and carry any necessary equipment that your service dog may need throughout the day. For example, most handlers carry things like potty kits in case a dog has an accident, poop bags, collapsible bowls, place mats, treats, booties for hot days, cooling coats for hot days, and maybe even a spare vest in their car or backpack. Forget making a quick run to the store. Each time you leave the house with your service dog, you'll have to make sure your dog has used the bathroom, and that you have all their gear. It's a lot to keep track of, but worth it when they can provide independence for their handler.
Access issues are also a problem for many handlers. Unfortunately, many abled people abuse the system and take untrained pets into non pet-friendly places. This causes issues for two reasons: 1) it sullies the reputation of real service dogs when misbehaved pets walk into places and make a bad name with their bad behavior, and 2) it makes businesses wary of service dogs, making them more likely to try and deny access (even though they cannot unless your service animal is out of control). It is important for all service dog handlers to be informed of their rights, and be informed on local, state, and federal laws surrounding service dogs. Access issues can often trigger handlers who suffer from various types of anxiety which is something to consider when getting a service dog for anxiety-related disabilities.
Another thing to consider is the amount of attention service dogs draw from the public. While you generally would not notice a well-trained service dog in a crowd, when you have a service dog you'll get more than the occasional drive-by pet or stranger trying to distract your service dog. This can be frustrating, and very dangerous for service dogs' whose job it is to alert to things like low blood sugar, allergens, seizures, and changes in heart rate. This can also be triggering for those with anxiety-related issues so keep this in mind when deciding if a service dog is the right choice for you.
The last, and one of the most important things to consider when exploring the prospect of getting a service dog, is training and breed. When it comes to service dog training, you can do the training on your own, you can work with a trainer, or you can acquire a fully-trained or partially-trained dog. Either way, training can be a huge financial commitment on top of purchasing a purpose-bred dog. Not all dogs are cut out for service work, which is why it is important to research the breed that will be best fit for your needs and lifestyle. The most commonly successful service dogs are Labs, Goldens, and Poodles. For first-time handlers, one of these breeds is often best because it stacks the odds in your favor. Regardless of breed, it is also important to note that you could spend thousands on a dog, and thousands more on training, and your prospect may still not turn out to be successful in service work. This is something to keep in mind, and a risk you accept when you get a service dog prospect.
At the end of the day, choosing a service dog as your medical equipment is a big commitment and responsibility. But for those who truly need them, the benefits of having a service dog and the independence service dogs bring is worth every bit of struggle and frustration that you go through to have that service dog. When making this decision, take the above into account and choose wisely. Service dogs are there for their handler, but as the handler, you'll have to be there for them too.