Service Dog Training & Info

What exactly do you need a service dog for?
I am diagnosed with major depression (in 1994), anxiety (2001), and Asperger’s Syndrome (2004). Wings was- and future service dogs will be task trained- they are NOT emotional support animals who benefit me solely by being comforting. Here is a partial task list (always under construction)

  • Wake up handler up for alarms and smoke detectors since medication makes me sleep very heavily and I won’t wake up for them. (I also become extremely anxious that I will sleep through an important alarm or call and will stay up for extended periods of time in order to prevent this from happening.)
  • Remind to take medications at correct times- this has always been a battle for me, and I tend to tune out alarm clocks (see above. :P)
  • Respond to panic attacks by guiding handler out of stressful situation.
  • Respond to handler becoming visually fixated/zoned/tranced and unable to look away by bumping handler’s hand or arm; escalating to paws-up on handler if that doesn’t work.
  • Assist handler to find lost/dropped/forgotten items (keys, purse).
  • Remind handler of routine items which she forgets by alerting to notes.

Additionally, Wings was able to predict migraines- she could tell which headaches were regular headaches and which were migraines before they got to the point that I had any aura and acted differently towards me prior to the ones that developed into full blown migraines. (I frequently get tension headaches and sometimes can’t tell which one a minor ache is going to turn into.) I don’t expect a future dog to be able to do this, but it would be REALLY useful.

While most program-trained service dogs are subsidized by donations from individuals and corporations and grant money (although many programs expect their recipents to fundraise by writing to corporations and foundations for donations in their name), owner-trained dogs are funded exclusively by their owners. It’s estimated that it costs $3000-5000 to owner-train a service dog- per dog. If one dog does not work out, you will start over- with a new set of expenses. For more about the costs involved in training a service dog, click here. I have raised all of the costs for my previous service dogs myself, primarily through the sales of my art and jewelry, which can be seen at Shiny Stuff

Why not get a dog from a shelter?
In general, it’s estimated by service dog trainers that about 10% of dogs in shelters have the potential to become working dogs of some sort (this figure includes assistance dogs, search and rescue dogs, police/narcotics dogs, etc). However, 75% of those dogs wash out for health reasons and another 10% washes out due to temperament issues that did not show up in the initial evaluation (usually related to socialization). I prefer to purchase an health-tested dog from a breeder with a known socialization history and no major vices to overcome.

Update, 2013 –
After Kaylee passed away, I chose a rescue for my next candidate, who washed out of training due to lack of desire to work. Great dog (and I’ve kept him as a pet)- but he has no desire to work. That’s okay. His adventures are over on His successor is another breeder-donated dog, a GSD.


5 Responses to Service Dog Training & Info

  1. Thanks for a very informative post. I had no idea that service dogs could be trained for such an assortment of emotionally subtle and complex needs. Your comments about why not get a dog from a shelter did ring true to me. I’m about to stumbleupon and twitter this page to share it with others.

  2. Angela says:

    I find it intersesting that your statement about shelter dogs and health/temperment problems and having better chances with a breeder yet your first collie service dog wings died at age of TWO from health issues. Hmm.

    Keep in mind that only recently has the acceptance of dogs from shelters as pets and even more recently as service dogs become more accepted so the statistics can reflect that.

    Cait says:
    The thing is locally, we have four groups all looking for dogs in the shelters for SD potential- dogs get pretty picked over. As an individual looking, of course the groups who have been doing this longer get higher priority. And there’s just such a VAST difference between a well-bred dog (with a breeder who has worked with generation after generation of a family and watched them grow up, work, and die of old age) and a poorly bred purebred. Wings was the later- in fact, a sibling of hers was placed through the local breed rescue- Mal and Kaylee are the former.

    Rescue dogs can certainly do the work. And there’s quite a bit to be said for the really muttly dogs (3rd or 4th generation randombred mixes)- natural selection WILL weed out quite a few of the unhealthy dogs. I just prefer to stack the deck by going to a reputable breeder.

  3. Just had to jump in here to give my 2 cents…

    As a service dog handler of ten years, and an advocate for as many, and President/Founder of an award-winning SD organization; I am currently training my third service dog. My first dog was a pet prior to my accident that had the ability to alert to my seizures. He was futher trained to pull my wheelchair, retrieve objects, and act as a brace/walking cane when I learned how to walk again. “Dewey” was a St. Bernard/German Shepherd “mutt” that I had rescued four years before my accident… a dog who became an incredible service dog and an ambassador for teams everywhere as a full partner in our educational program, and book, “Canine and Abled, Inc.”

    That being said, I searched rescue groups for my next service dog and my heart was set on a Collie (known for their devoted and intuitive natures). I had difficulty finding a dog without abuse/neglect issues that could be overcome enough to allow them to remain calm and task-oriented in the most stressful of situations. I had trainers around the country evaluating dogs and tested over 500 before I found my true match; my beloved Dawson, who was offered to me at a much, much discounted price from a very reputable and extremely well-known breeder. Dawson had none of the emotional issues that the collies in shelter situations did; ones that could threaten my own health should the dog succum to their fear in a time when I needed them.

    My current service dog in training, Nadja is a beautiful, black German Shepherd. She was gracously donated to me by her breeder when she learned of my fruitless shelter search. I searched rescue groups all over the country for a suitable GSD for over a year and a half who could fulfill the needs of my disabilities. I was told time and time again by these “rescues” that they would not place a GSD into a working home!!! Okay, they were bred for WHAT?? To Work…and yet groups who claim to rescue them wanted $500 to place them; but not into a working home.

    I obviously haven’t had good experiences finding potential service dog candidates for service work; but I have several other professional dog handlers (police. SAR, and service handlers) who have had the same exact obviously, it’s not just me.

    I’m all about rescue… and advocate for people finding beloved pet dogs/cats/other animals there……only the rescues that I’ve personally come across aren’t good avenues to adopt potential SD candidates. JMO

  4. katrin says:

    thanks for stopping by my blog. nice to see another owner trainer out there blogging.

  5. Sabra says:

    I adopted a German Shorthaired Pointer that was approximately 9 months old that a friend of mine found wandering along the highway. When I heard about the dog, I had recently lost my best furry friend to an irresponsible hunter, so I was doing a lot of rescue. Since I was a volunteer 4-H obedience and agility leader, I took Flecks with me and trained her with the kids.

    Two years later my auto-immune arthritis caught up with me and forced me to start walking with a cane. When I found out that I could use my own dog as a service dog, I was thrilled! Flecks was WAY over-qualified! Sadly, she has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and will be forced to retire soon.

    I have finally found another “shelter dog” to train as my next mobility service dog. A regular who-knows-what… but I think her personality speaks for itself. There are other shelter dogs in my area that have been trained too. It would have been nice to be able to spend the thousands of dollars it would take to get a “cookie-cutter” dog, but I prefer my commands now that we have had them for 4 years, and I just don’t have that kind of money.

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