Assistance dogs are wonderful working animals that literally change lives for people with disabilities and their loved ones. These intelligent, adaptable, reliable, supportive, highly trained canine partners can perform an astounding array of tasks, help mitigate many aspects of many types of disability, and provide invaluable companionship.
It’s easy to gush about the countless benefits of assistance dogs, especially for those of us who’ve already partnered with one. However, it’s important not to be dismissive of the responsibilities that come with having a guide, hearing, or service dog, or of the fact that’s it’s a big decision that can’t be made lightly.
The truth of the matter is that partnering with an assistance dog won’t be a good match for every person. Lots of individual considerations come into play when figuring out whether an assistance dog is right for you. Below are some of the big questions you need to ask in deciding if you want to pursue this avenue, or perhaps turn instead to assistive technologies and other sources of support.
Consider the Costs
While thinking about money might seem secondary to such an emotional issue, it’s extremely important to understand the financial commitment of partnering with an assistance dog. Acquiring an assistance dog is far more involved—and costly—than adopting a pet dog.
Depending on where you get yours, the process of applying for, choosing, training, and getting your assistance dog can be lengthy and cost as much as $5,000 to $25,000. Remember, too, that this isn’t even counting the ongoing costs of dog food, treats, supplies, toys, bathing products, veterinary appointments, medications, maybe a dog walker or professional groomer, and all the rest. Dog care costs average around $150 per month, or $1,800 per year.
You’ll also have to spend time training with your new partner. Also, many hearing, guide, and service dogs require occasional ongoing training, which typically means spending additional time and money on the process.
Committing to Necessary Care
Having a dog in your home comes with a number of responsibilities that require your time, money, involvement, and commitment. Some of the big ones include feeding her a nutritious diet, providing her plenty of physical and mental stimulation, ensuring a sanitary environment, allowing access to the outdoors, tending to her bathroom needs and cleanup, keeping her clean and well groomed (which is especially important for being able to take her out in public), offering daily attention and affection, providing veterinary care and any necessary treatments, parasite control, and more.
Think about how this will all work with your daily life. Partnering with an assistance dog means you’re accepting responsibility for appropriate care. Be certain that you can consistently deliver it. Of course, you don’t have to do it alone; family, friends, neighbors, and professionals can always lend a hand.
Set Realistic Expectations
It’s important that you and your loved ones have realistic expectations about the help provided by an assistance dog. Make no mistake, they are amazing animals that do amazing things. While they can make a huge difference to your quality of life, in-depth conversations with your doctor and a professional assistance dog trainer are necessary to determine whether you can get the help you most need from an assistance dog.
Also, while your partner will be highly trained for about two years, and while she’ll generally be very well behaved, she won’t be perfect. No person is perfect, and no dog is either. She may sometimes need to be controlled in public, she will need to be corrected for service infractions, and again, she may need corrective or additional training at some point.
Selecting the Right Organization or Trainer
There are many places across the US from which to source an assistance dog, so choosing a good one is critical. Start by deciding whether you prefer to work with a local trainer or organization, or whether you’re comfortable traveling. Remember, partnering with an assistance dog means being immersed in the process of finding a great match and training with her.
You also have to choose between smaller and larger providers. There are advantages and disadvantages with each. For example, smaller and regional organizations usually mean shorter waiting lists and more personalized attention; larger organizations tend to offer more financial assistance thanks to greater donations, access to grants, etc.
Look into whether an organization gets dogs from shelters, too, which is more common with smaller providers. Reputable providers thoroughly screen dogs for health and behavioral concerns, but there may still be unknown background factors that don’t exist in the dogs a larger organization breeds itself.
For more information about this aspect of acquiring a guide, hearing, or service dog, please see our article about choosing a reputable assistance dog provider.
The Application and Partnering Process
Every organization and trainer is unique, and so is each one’s process. Often, it begins with sending a letter of interest that explains your situation, needs, and hopes. Sometimes, you can go straight to filling out and submitting an application via the provider’s website.
Once your application has been reviewed, the next step is generally to meet with a representative for a chat and interview to further explore your needs and expectations and make initial determinations about what sort of match might be best for you. This is also your chance to evaluate the facility and staff, educate yourself in-depth on the program and its process, and check out some assistance dogs in training and at work. Go to the meeting prepared with a list of your questions.
After your application is approved, you go on the provider’s waiting list. You’ll be contacted when a fully trained assistance dog that the provider believes is a strong match for you becomes available. An assistance dog’s training can range from 3 to 32 months, but it typically takes about 12 to 24 months, and it covers basic and advanced commands.
Training processes and timing differ, but should always at least meet Assistance Dogs International’s (ADI) minimum training standards. Training also often includes a temporary living arrangement with a volunteer family who cares for and helps socialize the dog.
Your provider matches you with a dog in full consideration of your best interest and hers. You train with your new partner for one to several weeks to ensure everyone’s happy with the match and so you and your assistance dog learn to work together properly. This happens either at the provider’s facility or at your own home. There’s more structure and support on-site, while training in your home can be more helpful for the transition as you and your partner learn about your new life together.
There’s no official certification for assistance dogs, and you don’t ever have to provide one for protection under the ADA and other laws. However, your provider may require you and your new partner to pass public access testing to confirm you’re both ready to be in a variety of public situations together. ADI’s public access test is widely used. The organization or trainer you use may give you certifications that confirm your assistance dog’s training and/or passing the public access test.
We hope this has given you some direction in deciding whether an assistance dog might be right for you or your loved one. Don’t make the decision lightly, and recognize the extent of the commitment you’re making. If the decision to partner with a guide, hearing, or service dog is made for all the right reasons and with realistic expectations, it should work out wonderfully for all parties involved.
Also, be prepared to be persistent. Just because one provider doesn’t approve your application of find an appropriate match for you, that doesn’t mean this will be true with other providers. Again, each one has its own criteria and processes, so keep at it.
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Some Helpful Resources
- Take a look at the dog breeds most commonly trained as assistance dogs
- Insights into selecting the best assistance dog breed for your needs and preferences
- Important information about choosing the right assistance dog provider
- Resources for finding grants to help with getting an assistance dog
- Resources for finding financial aid for caring for an assistance dog
- Resources for finding financial aid for an assistance dog’s medical care