For people living with disabilities, few things enrich and enable life as fully as a service dog can. However, bringing a service dog into your household is no easy feat. From finding the right dog to keeping him healthy throughout his life, there’s a lot that goes into owning a service animal.
While any breed of dog could potentially be a service dog, it’s important to find the right dog for you and your disability. Instead of searching for the breed you’ve always dreamed of as a pet, consider what tasks you’d like your service dog to do and what size, activity level, and personality type is most suited for those duties and your handling abilities.
Since service dogs are harder to find than companion animals, you’ll need to start your search early to find the right dog for you. Consider whether you want a dog that has already been trained or if you prefer to adopt or purchase a dog and train it yourself. Most people who choose to train a service dog themselves use the help of a trainer. You can train a puppy or an adult dog you purchase or adopt from a shelter. However, it’s important that the dog you choose has the right temperament for becoming a service dog. Often, this means an adult dog whose disposition is known.
Service dogs require a larger budget than companion animals. Their initial purchase can range from the hundreds to the thousands, although there are many organizations dedicated to helping people afford a service dog. You’ll also need to account for annual costs for food, toys, veterinary care and training. Make sure you’re prepared to keep your service dog healthy, happy, and working.
Once you bring your new service dog home, the work really starts. If your service dog is already trained, purchase gear to identify your dog as a service animal in public. While not required, harnesses and collars identifying your dog as a service animal will deter questions when you bring your dog into public spaces and discourage others from distracting him while he’s working.
If your new dog hasn’t yet been trained as a service animal, hold off on the gear for now. Instead, start training your dog to be a canine good citizen. First priorities should be house training and basic obedience like sit, stay, and down. Practice walking calmly on a leash and focusing on you, not other dogs or humans, when you’re out and about.
Once your dog can pass a Public Access Test, like the one offered by Assistance Dogs International, he’s ready to start service dog training. At this time you may want to purchase accessories to identify your dog as a service animal in training. If you’re not already, start working with a professional service dog trainer. Training a dog to perform specific, highly-skilled tasks is beyond the ability of most owners.
Living with a service dog goes beyond having a dog that works for you. In order to maintain effectiveness as a service animal, your service dog needs time to relax too. Promote the bond between you and your service dog by having fun when he’s “off the clock.” This could mean daily walks, a trip to the park, or a dip in a pool. Stock your home with toys that offer stimulation, like treat puzzles, and with toys that let him unwind after a busy day.
Maintain the health and appearance of your service dog through regular grooming, teeth brushing, and nail clipping. Schedule annual checkups with your veterinarian, and keep as close an eye on his health as he does on yours. When your service dog is feeling his best, he’s better equipped to guide you through daily life.
A service dog provides wonderful benefits to people living with disabilities, but owning a service dog is also a big responsibility. Make sure you’re prepared to commit to the whole animal, from training to play time, when you bring a service dog into your home.
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