What is the difference between a service dog, an emotional support dog, and a therapy dog?
A service dog is a dog who is trained to perform tasks to mitigate a disability. Once trained, they have public access with their human partner and can go anywhere the public is allowed.
An emotional support dog helps with issues like anxiety disorders, and while they do provide a benefit to their partner and have more rights than a pet dog, they do not have full public access. They are allowed on planes and in apartments.
A therapy dog is trained to go places such as hospitals and nursing homes to provide comfort to a variety of people (instead of just one partner, which is the case with a service or emotional support dog). They do not have public access except to places they are invited to come and visit.
Is a service dog right for me?
Service dogs are an amazing and useful tool for many people. Legally, to have public access with a service dog, you must need the dog to perform trained tasks for you to mitigate a disability. The dog must also be perfectly behaved (almost invisible) in public. Service dogs can assist people who have mobility issues, who have hearing loss or are deaf, with vision loss or blindness, PTSD, seizures, diabetes, and much more.
If you think you would be helped by a service dog, think about what tasks might be useful to you. Do you frequently drop things and have trouble picking them up? Do you need help opening doors or getting laundry out of the dryer? Do you need a dog to alert you when someone is knocking on your door or a smoke alarm is going off?
You also want to consider whether you need to be able to take your dog in public, or if you just want their help around the house. Public access requires a much longer and more intensive training process, and most dogs are not suited for it - only a small percentage of dogs are able to work in public as a service dog.
I focus on mobility and hearing dogs, but can direct you to resources for other types of service dogs if needed.
How do I get a service dog?
I recommend going through an ADI (Assistance Dogs International) accredited non-profit organization first. These groups carefully select the dogs they use and often offer them for free, or for a much smaller fee than paying for a trained service dog from a for-profit group or trainer. Be careful and do your research when looking for a dog - there are a lot of scams out there right now as service dogs become more popular! If you have questions about what organization might be a good fit for you, feel free to get in touch with me and I am happy to make recommendations.
If you would like to use your own dog, see the next question for details.
Can you train my dog to be a service dog?
In some cases, yes. However, not every dog can be a service dog. They don't just need to be able to get into college - they need to be an Ivy League student. If you are looking for a skilled companion (an "in-home" service dog who does not have public access), most dogs can be trained to do helpful tasks and a higher percentage of dogs are suited for this job. However, if you are looking to take your dog in public, I will need to do an evaluation of your dog and cannot guarantee even then that your dog will eventually be able to pass the public access test (I use the one recommended by ADI.) There are a lot of factors that contribute to whether your dog can become a service dog with public access, ranging from their temperament to the time and effort you put into training. Because of this, there is no way to guarantee your dog will become a service dog - even if you do everything right, some dogs are not the right fit for the job. Even organizations that train service dogs and choose or breed their own dogs have very high release rates - in many organizations, less than half of those who start go on to graduate.
Of course, obviously many dogs do go on to become service dogs, and if your dog has the right temperament and you are willing to put in the time and effort it requires, I will certainly help you train your potential service dog to the highest level he or she is capable of reaching.
If you do not yet have a dog but prefer finding your own dog to going through an organization, I do offer services to help you choose the right dog.
What are my legal rights with a service dog?
A service dog with public access can go anywhere the public is allowed. Business owners are only legally allowed to ask you two questions - "Is that a service dog?" and "What tasks does he/she perform for you?" They are, however, allowed to ask you to leave if your dog misbehaves (pees on the floor, barks, etc.). You will still be able to come back into the store at that point, but cannot have your dog with you.
Legally, you do not have to have a vest or carry identification that your dog is a service animal; however, it can be very helpful and prevent a lot of questions. It is also helpful to carry a copy of the law with you in case you are questioned.
How long will training my service dog take?
In most cases, at least a year. Training an in-home service dog is generally faster, but a dog who will have public access needs quite a bit of intensive training. It may be months before you even start training your dog in public, depending on the dog's age and previous level of training. Most organizations that train service dogs spend 1-2 years and many thousands of dollars (around $45,000 is pretty standard) training their dogs. (And organizations that are non-profits then often offer the dogs for free or a much lower cost, which is part of why I recommend going to an organization first when looking for a service dog!) So while training your own dog shouldn't cost as much as that, it will still be a long, generally expensive process.
I just got a puppy and want him/her to be my service dog. What do I do now?
Hopefully you talked to a trainer before getting your puppy to make sure you chose the right breed and personality for your needs, and to get an idea of how expensive training will be. If not, contact a qualified trainer immediately. The first step is going to be getting your new puppy extremely well-socialized and start them on basic foundation training. After that, more complicated service dog training can begin. But keep in mind, your puppy will have to grow up a lot before they can be your working dog, and it may be a year or two before you can actually use them as a service dog in public.