The work of service, guide, and hearing dogs is quite demanding, and they must exhibit good behavior, great restraint, and unwavering focus and dependability in a wide variety of situations and environments. While there are certain breeds especially well suited to assistance dog work, only generalities can be made; dogs of any breed can be successfully trained for these purposes, and just because a dog is of one of the more commonly used breeds, that doesn’t mean she’s a suitable candidate. Ultimately, it takes a special dog to handle the job, and determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis.
To ensure you partner with a dog who’s thoroughly vetted, trained, and well cared for; screened for major health concerns; and is as healthy and happy as possible, acquire your service dog from a quality, reputable trainer or assistance dog program.
Most service dog providers are staffed by honest, caring, diligent, hard-working experts who love the animals they work with and who are dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities. However, there are also some disreputable breeders and trainers who prioritize profits over animal and human welfare.
Here are some tips to help you confidently choose a reputable assistance dog provider:
Get provider recommendations from qualified parties. These might include other people partnered with service dogs, a nonprofit organization serving people with disabilities, or a veterinarian.
Research any provider you’re considering. Google the person or agency and read reviews by people who’ve worked with them before. Ask them for references too; any reputable provider should be willing to put you in touch with satisfied customers. Have they been in business long? Also, check their local Better Business Bureau for information.
Visit the facility and carefully evaluate it. Is the entire environment—inside and out—clean and safe? Pay careful attention to where dogs are trained and their living spaces. Do they have access to clean water? Do they have toys and clean, comfy bedding? Do the dogs all look clean, well groomed, well fed, and happy? Are they well behaved and affectionate with trainers, or do they show signs of fear around them? Is it obvious that the trainers love and respect the animals as they interact with them? Talk to the trainers to see if they seem well informed and caring.
Ask for a detailed explanation of the training process. The provider should be able to give you in-depth information about how their dogs are prepared for service work, and they should use positive training methods. Find out details of the trainers’ training and experience, as well as how many dogs they’ve successfully trained and placed.
Ask for a detailed explanation of the partnering process. Reliable assistance dog providers know it’s essential to carefully match the person and the canine. They have a thoughtful process based on experience and expertise to ensure the dog and person can properly care for each other and that they’ll get along well.
Consider what the provider asks you. Any good provider requests detailed information about your physical and mental health, including from your doctor. They want to know about your lifestyle and limitations, your ability to provide daily care, and more. If the provider isn’t obviously very interested in you, they aren’t too interested in matching you with the right dog.
Be reassured by having little choice in the matter. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s an important point. Reputable providers use their expertise—expertise that you lack—to pair you with the right dog. Don’t worry, all your needs, circumstances, and preferences are carefully taken into consideration.
See the health and training records of dogs to confirm they’ve had regular veterinary care, parasite control, appropriate health screenings, vaccinations, prompt treatment of any injuries or illness, spaying or neutering, and thorough training. Refusal to show records is a major red flag.
Inquire all about your dog’s training before signing the paperwork. Request to see videos of her training, find out how many hours of training she’s had, confirm that she’s been trained for all the tasks she’s supposed to do for you, make sure she’s trained and proofed on and off lead, and ask which temperament test have been performed.
Find out about initial and ongoing support offered by the trainer. Reputable providers continue to help you for a reasonable period after you take your dog home. They also generally offer additional training should any behavioral issues arise or your disability gets worse.
Ask about contractual details like whether ownership of the dog transfers to you and what happens if your dog dies or becomes unable to perform her responsibilities unexpectedly.
Beware dubious claims like completed training in a month or two (assistance dog training takes, on average, 1.5 to 2 years) or dogs that are ready to partner even though they’re only maybe 1 year old. Also, there are no official service dog certifications, so stay away from providers charging higher fees for “certified” animals. However, a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification is always good.
Don’t be won over by fancy websites or frequent listings, as many fraudulent or less-than-reputable service dog providers go to great lengths to appear legitimate, trustworthy, and respected. There are huge profits to be made, so scammers are willing to invest in their endeavors. Also, keep in mind that many upstanding organizations publish lists of providers but lack the resources to fully investigate the providers they name; these directories can be good jumping-off points, but should not be used in place of the due diligence outlined above.
Assistance Dog Training
Find Assistance Dog International (ADI) members. Service dogs are typically trained by assistance dog organizations, professional dog trainers, or individual owners. Again, while most are reputable, not all are; opt for acquisition through an ADI member organization.
ADI is a nonprofit coalition dedicated to improving the assistance dog industry and its service to people with disabilities, advocating for them, and to better educating the public about related issues. Member organizations are accredited and regularly assessed to ensure continuing compliance with ADI’s high standards.