Important factors to consider BEFORE getting one.
Are you thinking about getting a service dog to help with your PTSD, TBI or other physical or emotional issues? Before you randomly select a service dog organization, be sure to do your homework. You want to make sure the program is reputable.
Pet dogs can also help a great deal with PTSD, so consider that route too. Although the dog won't have public access, you will find great comfort at home, your symptoms will decrease and you can enjoy taking the dog to dog friendly venues. If you don't have a dog, consider volunteering at a shelter. This will give you the opportunity to interact with dogs and learn more about your specific needs. You may find that a pet dog is just what you need, and by rescuing a dog, you'll be saving a life.
The process of obtaining a service dog can be daunting. There are some excellent programs out there that provide PTSD service dogs. But, there’s also many more popping up every day that are questionable. The motives of these programs are admirable, but you want to make sure they are legitimate and experienced. There are also programs you want to stay away from.
Sometimes when we’re in dire straits we don’t make the best decisions. And, getting a service dog is a major decision. Please use caution, and take your time. This is lifetime commitment and should be researched carefully. You want to make sure that the program you choose has the background, experience and training necessary to provide a highly trained dog for your specific needs.
There is a high demand for PTSD service dogs, and quality is getting harder and harder to come by. The last thing you want is to face issues that will add to your stress. When you are matched with a dog, it should have had all the training necessary and be completely ready to work.
The following factors are meant to educate, empower and help prepare you to make an educated decision that will not only affect your life, but the life of your prospective dog. You can find a great deal of information on the websites of programs. And, you can always call the programs with whatever questions you still have after reviewing the information below.
There are a lot of questions here, but please don't feel overwhelmed. Read them at your own pace. Click on the ones that are most important to you, and leave the others for another day. Use this is a resource, and come back to it whenever you feel the need.
If you copy, share or print this out, please give credit to Judy Fridono/SurfDogRicochet.com. Thank you, and good luck!
Judy Fridono has a degree in service dog training from Bergin University of Canine Studies (formerly the Assistance Dog Institute). She also works with Pawsitive Team's Canine Inspired Community Re-integration program for active duty military with PTSD, and she oversees Surf Dog Ricochet's Battle Buddy Initiative for veterans with PTSD, TBI's, MST and other combat injuries.
1. Am I sure I need a service dog?
There has been a great deal of media, word of mouth, and other news about how much service dogs can help PTSD. Because of that, many service members and veterans are making spontaneous decisions to get one. But, it may be too soon in your recovery process to bring another life that you’re responsible for into the mix. You might want to give some of your other treatment modalities a chance to work before making a commitment to get a dog.
2. How do I think a service dog could make a difference in my life?
Really put some thought into this. Be realistic. Make sure your expectations are reasonable. Ask yourself if you could get the same results from a family member or other treatment modality. Just because you’ve seen other veterans with a service dog doesn’t mean you will get the same results. All teams are different. All dogs are different. All individuals are different. Write out a list of what you’re hoping the dog can do for you, and share it with the programs you apply to. They need to know your expectations, and you need to know if they can be fulfilled by one of their dogs.
3. Is it too early in my recovery process to get a service dog?
Ask yourself if you can handle the stress of applying for a service dog at this juncture. There is a lot of paperwork involved. There are personal questions asked on applications. Do you have the energy and wherewithal to commit to the training and upkeep of a dog right now? Some programs require that a veteran wait at least one year post injury/event before applying for a service dog so you can devote your time and energy to healing. Dogs are a lot of work. They require a lot of time. If you’re still in treatment which demands most of your time and energy, or if your work or home situation is in flux, this may not be the best time to get a dog. You want to make sure a dog won’t add to your stress and anxiety.
4. Can I afford the annual upkeep of a service dog?
Many non-profit organizations provide service dogs at no charge to the recipient. But the fact is, dogs cost money. Are you prepared to cover the costs of food, treats, veterinary care and much more over the lifetime of the dog?
5. Am I ready for potential awkward encounters in public with my service dog?
There are things that can happen when taking a service dog in public places that may make you uncomfortable. Sometimes business owners aren’t educated about public access laws and may try to keep you from entering. Kids may run up and want to pet your dog. People may ask you inappropriate questions. A dog makes you more noticeable, so ask yourself if you’re ready for the attention a dog can bring to you.
6. How much will it cost me to maintain a service dog?
You want to make sure you’ll be able to afford the up-keep of a service dog throughout its lifetime. The day-to-day expenses of a dog include quality food, shots, teeth cleaning, training treats, toys, bones, veterinary care, grooming and other miscellaneous items. If you want your dog to wear a service dog vest, you will have that expense as well. Annual expenses could run upwards of $1000 per year, and more if the dog gets sick or injured.
7. How can I tell what program will be the best for me?
You want to find a service dog organization that can show a proven track record in placing Service dogs. They should also have a proven track record in placing service dogs for PTSD or your specific disability. The most critical piece to finding the best program is RESEARCH! Do your homework. The more you interview programs and ask them these questions, the more you will learn. As you get more knowledgeable about the industry, it will become clearer as to what program will serve your needs the best. Don’t be in a rush to make one of the biggest decisions of your life. You deserve the best, so take the time to find the most reputable and trustworthy program.
8. What is a service dog?
Service dogs are protected by both Federal and State Laws. According to the Department of Justice, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service animal is defined as any DOG that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by the dog must mitigate and be directly related to the handler’s disability. In March, 2011, revisions to the ADA excluded all animals but dogs (and miniature horses in special provisions) as service animals.
The ADA’s definition of a service dog states “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.”
Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
A service dog is a working animal, not a pet. They require a great deal of specialized training to learn tasks that will mitigate their handler’s disability such as obstacle avoidance for those with sight impairments, alerting to sounds for those with hearing impairments, retrieving dropped items for those with mobility impairments, alerting to an oncoming anxiety attack for those with PTSD or a myriad of other tasks which are outlined at http://www.iaadp.org/tasks.html
Service dogs have legally defined public access rights, which means they are allowed to accompany their disabled handler in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. Additional information on this law can be found at this link http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.
9. What is an emotional support animal?
An emotional support animal is typically a pet that provides therapeutic support to their handler through companionship. If a doctor determines that a patient with a mental illness would benefit from an emotional support animal, the doctor can write letters of support to public housing and airlines so the animal can be allowed in “no pets” housing or in the cabin of a plane.
The ADA considers emotional support animals to be distinctly different from PTSD and psychiatric service dogs. The ADA does not grant emotional support animals the same access to public places that it gives to individuals who use service, psychiatric or PTSD dogs to mitigate their disability.
There is little or no training required for an emotional support animal. They are not trained specific tasks to mitigate their handler’s disability. Their main role is to comfort their handler. For more information on the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals go to http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/76
10. Would an emotional support dog be more appropriate for me than a service dog?
Many people find emotional support animals to be exactly what they need. They don’t have a need for the dog to perform a specific task. They just want the companionship a dog can provide. A pet dog or rescued dog can be used for emotional support. Although, under the ADA the dog doesn’t have public access, you can take it anywhere a pet dog can go. Often an emotional support animal is enough to get the handler out of the house and into more social settings. If you get a note from your doctor, the dog can be permitted to live in “no pets” housing, or accompany you in the cabin of a plane. But, because they don’t have public access they could not accompany you to restaurants, stores or other public places.
One of the biggest benefits of going with an emotional support dog opposed to a service dog is there is no time factor. It often takes months to get a service dog, but an emotional support dog could be as easy as going to your local shelter and falling in love with a pet dog. It’s still highly recommended that you go to training classes with your dog to learn basic obedience. Asking a trainer to go with you to pick out a dog is also a good idea so he/she can do a temperament test to ensure the dog doesn’t have any behavioral issues that could interfere with your recovery. Two organizations who place shelter/rescue dogs with veterans are http://pets-for-vets.com/ and http://petsforpatriots.org/
11. Can I train a service dog myself?
From a legal stand point, you can. But I don’t recommend it. It’s a risky proposition because you’ll be putting thousands of hours of training into it, and the dog may still not be appropriate. You also have to ask yourself if you have the skills to train a service dog correctly. Or what will you do if your dog ends up with a medical problem. It’s hard to be objective about your own dog, so you may miss signs the dog gives you which clearly indicate he doesn’t want to be a service dog. Many dogs prefer to just stay home, rather than handle the stress of working out in public all the time.
Be honest with yourself, and be fair to your dog. If your dog reacts to other dogs, has triggers, or other behavior challenges, it’s best to let him be a pet dog rather than continuously try and make him into something he doesn’t want to be. It’s your responsibility to keep yourself, your dog, and the general public safe, so try not to make excuses for why your dog growls at other dogs that get too close to him. Just admit that your dog prefers to be alone with you indoors, or in an enclosed yard or play area. Many of these type pet dogs make excellent emotional support dogs.
If you still decide to train your own dog for service dog work, don’t do it alone. Seek out the help of an experienced, credentialed service dog trainer. They should have a background in training dogs for psychiatric-specific tasks, and be well versed in public access testing.
12. Can any dog become a service dog?
No, not all dogs can be service dogs. It takes a certain temperament and disposition for a dog to become a service dog. In addition, they go through highly specialized training and socialization. They also need to be structurally sound, healthy and free of allergies. At no time should a service dog be reactive to other dogs, chase animals, show signs of fear, solicit attention from others, scrounge for food, or a myriad of other undesirable behaviors. A service dog must ignore the day-to-day distractions that are part of their partner’s life.
13. Is the organization a 501(c)3 non-profit?
A non-profit organization is a group organized for purposes other than generating profit and in which no part of the organization's income is distributed to its members, directors, or officers. Many non-profits rely on donations as a means to operate. You want to make sure the programs you’re working with are non-profits, or have started the process. Donations to non-profit organizations are tax deductible and an incentive to donors. Sadly, there are programs out there looking to capitalize on a booming trend of PTSD service dogs. Please be careful.
14. Where is the program located?
It’s always a plus to find a program that is local just because you’ll have better access to their resources. But, if you aren’t able to find a reputable local organization, there are many programs that place dogs around the country. You want to make sure they offer ongoing support after placement, and find out exactly what that support consists of.
If the program is out of state, find out who pays for expenses to get to their facility if you need to attend a class or other activity.
15. Do they place dogs locally, regionally or nationally?
You want to find out if the program places dogs in your locale, or the location where you plan to be living fter transitioning out of the service. If they don’t, you can cross the program off your list.
16. What type service dogs do they place?
A broader term for service dogs is assistance dogs. Many different disabilities fall under this umbrella including mobility, hearing, guide, seizure alert, autism, psychiatric, PTSD and more. Knowing what type of service dogs the program places will give you an idea of their focus. If you have a physical disability coupled with PTSD, you would want to find a program that has experience training both mobility service dogs and psychiatric/PTSD service dogs.
On the other hand, if the program hasn’t trained a dog for your specific disability, you will want to find another program.
17. Why do I have to fill out all that paperwork?
Every program is different and will have a different application process. But, the application process helps programs determine the best possible service dog match for you. Every person is an individual, and every dog is an individual, and they want to make sure they make the right match. The program should have a system in place that helps them determine what dog would be the best for you, and what tasks the dog needs to perform to best assist you. The application process also helps the program learn more about you, your personality, diagnosis, treatment, recovery process, home environment, support system, job status, lifestyle and so much more. Most programs will require medical and personal references, medical information forms, health evaluation forms and more. Some programs require home videos, and local programs may require a home visit. Any information you share should be kept confidential.
18. If my application is denied, will they share the reason with me?
It’s always helpful to know why a program denied your application, so be sure to ask if they will share this information with you BEFORE your begin the process.
19. If the program doesn’t approve my application, will they refer me to other programs?
Some programs will. Be sure to ask this question prior to filling out the application so you know what to expect going in.
20. What is the average time it takes to get a dog from application to placement?
Every program’s timeframe is different, so be sure to ask. Remember… don’t be in a rush to get a service dog. Take your time with this very important decision. It’s always a good idea to develop an ongoing dialogue with the organization. This way you can be kept abreast of potential opportunities for getting a dog sooner if one becomes available
21. What are some reasons a program would deny a veteran a service dog?
There are many reasons a veteran can be denied. Don’t take it personally because sometimes it’s the programs structure that prevents them from placing a dog with you at that point.
22. How does a program determine what applicants they’ll take?
Some programs look at what veterans they think could most benefit from a service dog. Not every veteran with PTSD can be helped by a service dog. Even though you think you can be helped with this tool, the screening process may reveal something different to the program.
23. Does the program visit my home as part of the application process?
Most reputable programs conduct a home visit prior to placement of one of their service dogs. This gives them the opportunity to determine how much room the dog will have to run around, if you have a fenced yard, how the family interacts, etc. At the very least, the program should require a video tour of your home.
24. Does the program place service dogs in homes with other animals?
Some programs may prefer that you don’t have another animal in your home. It’s always a good idea to see how your animals will respond to a service dog prior to placement. Either way, make sure you and your animals have the support and resources you need from the program to make that determination. Avoid the “let’s try it and see what happens” mindset because that isn’t fair to your pets or the service dog. A pet may try and protect it’s “home” and a fight could break out between the animals, and you definitely don’t want that to happen.
25. Would I be able to get references from people the program has placed a dog with?
It always helps to speak with others who have dogs from the program. They can share their experience and help answer questions you may have. Ask the program if they can give you references. If they say no, consider it a red flag. Most programs will allow you to speak to their clients as long as the client has given permission.
26. What follow up & after care does the program have post placement, especially if I live in another state?
You want to ensure the program offers regularly scheduled follow up in case any problems arise. The last thing you want is a program that places a dog with you, and then you never hear from them again. The program should have a system in place that monitors your progress. They should always be available to answer any questions you have via telephone or email. Find out how long they provide follow up, trouble shooting and after care.
27. What is the program’s training philosophy?
You want to make sure the program trains using a philosophy you’re comfortable with. Do they employ a positive training philosophy? Is it relationship based? Or do they use aversive methods, corrections, prong collars and discipline? There are proven positive methods in dog training, so there is no reason one has to use harsh methods. You want a dog who WANTS to work for you, not one that is forced to do it.
Beware of programs that teach their dogs through fear or force. These aversive methods can have a negative impact on the all-important relationship between you and your service dog. A program should never strike a dog, use leash corrections, shock collars or punishment.
Dogs that are taught with positive methods are eager to work because the relationship was built on trust and lots of great rewards for correct behaviors such as treats or toys.
28. How much does the program charge for a service dog?
You will get many different answers to this question. It depends on the organization, their overhead, trainers, business model, etc. Many non-profit organizations do not charge the recipient for the dog, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. There are many expenses involved in training and maintaining a dog over the course of their lifetime.
You will hear costs from no charge to $30,000 or even more! Every program sets their own fees. Some cover their costs through donations. Some will charge recipients for a dog. Be very careful of any organization that wants to charge you thousands and thousands of dollars for a dog. Be sure to get an itemized expense sheet so you know exactly what the cost covers. Ask if they have a payment plan, or do they require payment in full up front. Just be sure you have a signed contract that stipulates exactly what the organization will do with your funds. Ask what will happen if the dog doesn’t work out, or gets sick and can’t work as a service dog. Will they refund your money or replace the dog?
29. Do I have to fundraise for the dog?
Some programs expect you to fundraise to cover the payment of a service dog from their organization. Be careful with this as most programs with this expectation have it set up where your funds go directly to their organization. If your donors donate to an organization and specify your name, they cannot write off the donation for tax purposes. You also have a responsibility to your donors to explain what will happen to their donations if the match doesn't work out.
There is a big risk in this, so you need to ascertain what happens if you raise thousands of dollars, and some un-expected life event comes up where the dog is no longer an appropriate choice for you. Will you get your funds back? Or does the organization keep them no matter what? You are better creating your own fund, and purchasing the dog outright rather than putting funds into someone else’s account that you can never get back.
30. What is the size of the training facility? How many dogs are in training at one time?
You want to find out how many dogs they are training at one time. What is the ratio of trainers to dogs. It may sound impressive if a program tells you they have 50 dogs in training at one time to accommodate the need, but if the dogs aren’t getting the required attention, you have to question how qualified the dog is.
Small programs may only have a handful of dogs in training at one time, but they are getting un-divided attention. It may take longer to get a dog from a program like this, but it may be well worth the wait.
31. Where do the dogs live while they’re in training?
Some programs use kennels. Some use volunteers to take the dogs home. Some dogs live with the trainers. All programs are different, so find out how the dogs are cared for while they are in training. If a dog has lived in a kennel its whole life, they may not know how to function in a home environment. So, you will want to ensure that the dog has lived in a home for a good portion of its training life. Dogs that are raised and kept in kennels most of their lives typically don’t make the best service dogs. Dogs do much better when they are living in a home with a family.
32. What veterinary care and health screenings have been done?
All programs should provide veterinary care and health screenings of their dogs. You want to make sure you’re getting a healthy dog that can work until they’re about 10 years of age. The dog should have gotten all their vaccinations, an eye exam, hip and elbow x-rays, fecal exam, blood tests, heartworm testing, and been spayed or neutered. The dog should not have allergies or hip/elbow dysplasia. You should be allowed to review the dog’s vet records.
33. Are the dogs temperament tested?
Programs should perform temperament tests on their dogs because they will be working around public and should have a sound temperament. Not every dog has the temperament to be a service dog, so it’s very important to test the dogs. Ask the program what tests they use, when they use them and what scores they look for. The test should be performed by certified and credentialed trainers or behaviorists, so be sure to ask what the qualifications of the tester are.
You want to make sure the dog is assessed for personality, sociability, trainability, obedience, knowledge, manners, etc. The dog should not show any signs of reactivity, aggression, fear or anxiety. The dog should be evaluated in various locations to assure he can handle different environments and have similar results in all of them.
You also need to consider the dog’s energy level. If he’s too active, energetic or reactive to new things, he is probably not right for service dog work. Service dogs spend a good portion of their time just waiting quietly at their handler’s side.
34. What reasons would result in a dog NOT being accepted into a program?
There are many reasons a dog may not be accepted into a program. They could be due to health, behavior or a myriad of other reasons. They could have prey drive, allergies, lack of interest in training, fear, age, resource guarding, separation anxiety, etc. Ask the program what issues they release a dog for. It will give you a good indication of the quality of dogs they are placing. If they tell you they place dogs with issues, it’s a red flag, so cross that one off your list.
35. What are some typical issues the program had to deal with once the dog was placed?
Sometimes once a dog is placed an issue will surface that wasn’t seen during training. Programs try to simulate all kinds of environments a dog will encounter, but they can’t expose the dog to everything. So, once the dog goes home with the handler, something may come up. As long as the program is responsive and helps you fix the problem, it should be fine. You just want to make sure they don’t encounter issues all the time after placement because that will tell you they are doing something that isn’t quite working.
36. Where do they get their dogs?
Some programs breed their own dogs. Some take owner surrenders. Some rescue dogs from shelters. Some take donations from breeders or private owners. Where they get their dogs is a personal preference in your decision making process. If you prefer that an animal is rescued, then you are going to want a program that uses shelter dogs. If you want a pure-bred dog, you will probably want a program that has their own breeding program.
37. Do they rescue dogs from shelters to become their service dogs?
Many programs are rescuing dogs from shelters with the intent of saving the life of the dog and the veteran. It’s a great concept. But, it’s imperative that the program is very well educated, experienced and has the expertise in dog training and behavior. If they are rescuing dogs from rescues/shelters they should be credentialed and well versed in dog behavior. This is really important because a lay person or in-experienced dog trainer may not recognize the subtle signs a dog is exhibiting.
Not all dogs from a rescue or shelter would make a good service dog. Many of these dogs have pasts that consist of neglect, abuse, abandonment, isolation or worse. Some programs think their backgrounds make them the perfect match for those with PTSD because they share a “common bond”.
But, if a dog has a significant behavioral issue he needs to overcome, especially if he’s aggressive or fearful, it may not be fair to the dog to be expected to be out in public all the time. Plus the dog may have triggers that haven’t surfaced yet. For instance, there was a service dog in the driveway with his handler when they heard a loud pop noise. The dog bolted, and was missing overnight. Devastatingly, the dog was found dead on the highway after being hit by a car. It’s not fair to the dog, or the veteran to place a dog that is questionable. Make sure the program is choosing dogs that have the greatest likelihood of success.
Beware of any program that places rescue/shelter dogs with you without many months of training and socialization. If a program offers to match you with a rescue/shelter dog immediately, run in the other direction. The dog needs time to adjust, learn, train, and be socialized with an experienced trainer before it's basic temperament can be assessed prior to working with you. These dogs require patience and persistence to re-build trust and replace un-acceptable behaviors. It would be a dis-service to the dog and veteran to over simplify and rush the process.
Ask the program to explain to you in detail how they assess the dogs and what the training process is once the dog is accepted into the program. At what point do they determine the dog isn’t going to be rehabilitated? You want to make sure you feel comfortable with the process, always keeping the dog’s well-being in mind.
38. Do they place dogs with behavioral issues or a questionable background?
Some dogs have issues. You want to find out from the program if they try to fix the issues, or do they release the dog from the program at some point. Ask them for specifics. You want to make sure the dog you are matched with is solid and won’t create potential problems out in public.
39. Do they breed their own dogs?
Some programs breed their own dogs, or accept donated puppies from breeders.
There is no guarantee that a bred dog will make it as a service dog either. But, the program does know the dog’s background and genetics, and can begin training the puppy for service dog work immediately. Some programs feel the success rate of selectively bred dogs is much higher when they are bred specifically for this work. Whether you get a rescued dog or a pure bred dog is a personal decision that only you can make.
40. Do they place puppies?
It’s hard to resist a cute puppy! But, you need to evaluate if working with a puppy is the best option for you. There is no question you will develop a deep bond with a puppy. But puppies go through different fear periods and learning stages. Will your anxiety have an impression on a puppy that is looking to you as his pack leader? This could cause a problem if want to raise a confident puppy.
In addition, a puppy is like having a new baby. They are a lot of work. They require constant attention, housetraining, socialization and training. They will wake you up in the middle of the night. All these things can cause you more stress than you’re already experiencing with PTSD.
It will take at least two years to get the puppy trained and socialized to be a working service dog. That might be longer than what it will take to get an adult service dog from a program.
Training a puppy is a big risk because you don’t know what that little bundle of fur will grow into. It’s a possibility that the pup won’t be appropriate for service dog work. You then end up with a grown pet dog while starting the whole process of finding a program trained service dog again.
41. What breeds of dogs do they use?
Many programs use Labrador and Golden Retrievers, or a mixture of both. These breeds have a pre-disposition and desire to please. Some program focus more on temperament than breed. They look for dogs that are solid in every situation, have a high level of self-control, and show no re-active behaviors.
Other breeds that are used as service dogs include German Shepherds, Poodles, Collies, and mixed breeds. Some programs don’t use certain breeds due to their insurance liability or public perception such as bully breeds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Chows, etc. Other programs use these breeds as their preferred choice. But, the bottom line is some programs make decisions based on temperament rather than breed.
Breed preference is an individual decision that only you can make. If you’re not comfortable with the breed a program uses, check them off your list.
42. What is their success rate?
How many dogs has the organization placed with clients? What is the percentage of their success rate? Be cautious of those who tell you they have a 100% success rate. It takes a special dog to be a service dog, and not every dog is cut out to be one. There are always going to be dogs that aren’t appropriate for service dog work. Often these dogs make excellent pets, or therapy dogs. But, the organization should be honest with you and reveal how many dogs have been released, and how many have been placed.
Some of the reasons a dog may not complete a service dog training program include behavior issues, temperament issues, reactivity, fear, work ethic, anxiety, or health issues.
43. How many dogs have they placed?
It’s always a good idea to find out how many service dogs the program has placed to date. What types of disabilities have they placed service dogs with? If you have PTSD and the program has only placed one dog for PTSD you may want to move on to a program that has placed a larger number as they will have more experience.
44. How long have they been training service dogs?
Although you may want to support a new program, if they haven’t been training service dogs for long, they may not have the expertise that is needed. You should also ask them the number of years each of their trainers have been training dogs, what certifications they have, and when did they get them?
If you need a service dog for a specific disability, such as PTSD, you’ll want to make sure they have experience in that specialty.
Some programs utilize veterans as the dog trainers because they believe they can relate to other veterans. While this is definitely true from a military point of view, the veteran may not have experience training service dogs. Ideally, you want a program that can offer the understanding of your PTSD, TBI and other battle injuries, while providing credentialed and experienced service dog trainers. There aren’t that many programs that offer both. So, you’re best to go with a program that has top notch service dog trainers, as well as a working relationship with a team of PTSD clinicians and resources.
45. How many trainers do they employ?
Obviously the more trainers they have, the more resources they have. Find out if the trainers are volunteers or paid employees, and how many hours a week they work. That will give you an indication as to how much training the dog is getting.
46. What are the credentials & qualifications of their trainers?
Find out what certifications the trainers have. Are they behaviorists? Who are they certified through?
47. Do their trainers have experience with PTSD, TBI’s and other battle injuries?
It’s always preferred to have trainers, staff members, contracted employees or volunteers that have a background and experience with PTSD, psychiatric disabilities and the military so they have a complete understanding of your needs. Understanding PTSD, TBI and other battle injuries is essential to relating to the struggles the veteran is dealing with, and how a Service Dog can be an important piece of the recovery process.
Trainers who have the experience and specialized knowledge will recognize the behaviors such as anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares that the dog can be trained to assist with. When trainers have the knowledge of both PTSD and dog training they are much better at matching a successful service dog team.
48. What tasks do they train their dogs?
Service dogs are taught many different tasks depending on the disability. Most programs will ascertain what tasks you need the dog to perform based on your application. They should be able to train specific tasks based on your individual needs.
Some tasks dogs are trained to perform for PTSD include, waking you up from nightmares, alert to oncoming anxiety attacks, retrieve medications, interrupt panic attacks.
Some programs train tasks like “watch my back”, or go into a dark room to ensure it’s safe, or keep people at a distance. Other programs believe these tasks don’t really aid in the veteran’s recovery, and only act as a crutch. They prefer that the veteran teach the dog that the world is safe, not vice versa.
It’s also a bad idea to teach service dogs to be protective or reactive. The ADA does not cover protection dogs in their definition of a service dog. The last thing you, or the service dog community needs is a service dog growling or biting someone because they reacted to something they were taught to respond to as a threat. It’s not only a liability to you, it’s a liability to the program and all other service dog teams out there. The bottom line is service dogs are meant to mitigate your disability, not to be used as protection.
You want to find out from the program what their philosophy is. And then determine what philosophy makes the most sense to you, and will offer you the most in your recovery.
49. How long is the dog trained for?
Service dogs that are trained from puppyhood are typically not placed until they are about 2 years old. That is because the pup needs time to mature. They also need to be socialized and exposed to hundreds of environments so they can be comfortable in every situation as a service dog. That takes time. Some programs are making claims that they can train a service dog within 4-6 weeks, or that a dog can perform as a service dog at a year old. This is a red flag that you need to be aware of.
50. How old are the dogs when they come into their program?
Some programs start with puppies, so they could be 8 weeks old. Others who use rescue dogs typically get them at an older age. The typical timeframe an 8 week old puppy is in training is two years. So, it will take longer to receive a program dog trained from puppy hood. On the other hand, rescue dogs could be a year old or older by the time they’re rescued, and their training may take a year. The age of the dog will give you an indication of how long their waiting list is.
51. How old is the dog upon placement?
The main thing to keep in mind is that a service dog usually retires around 10 years of age. The younger the dog, the longer it will be able to work. You probably wouldn’t want a 5 year old dog placed with you because of the shortened working timeframe.
52. What type of training do the dogs get?
Most programs will vary in the type of training they give their dogs. But, you want to ensure the dogs are extensively trained in various aspects such as basic obedience, task training, manners, socialization, and specific training to meet an individual’s specific needs. The dogs should spend considerable time going out to public places with a confident leader. They should be able to pass the Canine Good Citizen certification and the dog should have a certificate when placed with you. They should also pass a public access test, and most reputable programs have additional training tests and certifications the dog and client need to pass.
Ask for specific examples of what the dog has been taught. You want to make sure the dog has been taught to do the tasks that you specifically need. How many hours of training has the dog had? Has the dog been taught to respond off lead? Ask if they have a video of the dogs in training that you can see.
53. Are their dogs trained to my specific needs?
In addition to training a service dog the basics, the program should also work very closely with you to provide additional task training which is very specific to your individual disability. The application process will help them ascertain what your needs are. By the time you are ready to begin training with the dog you’ve been matched with, the dog should be skilled in those tasks.
54. How has the dog been socialized? Who did the socialization?
Service dogs should be socialized with other animals, people, children, novelty, environments, public places, traffic, noises, surfaces, transportation and anything else that a person would encounter in their day-to-day life. Ask the program for a list of places the dog has gone in public, and if there were any issues identified.
Something else to carefully consider is who does the socialization. If you have PTSD and are involved in the socialization of your dog in training, are you giving him unconscious signals of anxiety? Emotions travel down the leash. So, if you are anxious in a grocery store where you are trying to socialize your young dog in training, he will pick up on the anxiety, and may interpret it to mean he should be anxious as well. It’s always a good idea to have a confident person do the socialization. Or that you are accompanied by an experienced trainer that can show you how to work with the dog so it doesn’t pick up on your anxiety. You want to make sure the dog is not being placed into public situations that are beyond what can reasonably be expected of it.
55. What is the timeframe they socialize their dogs to public places?
Because the service dog will be expected to accompany you to all the public places you go, you want to make sure the dog has had extensive socialization over a period of months. Beware of programs that have only socialized the dog for a few weeks. This isn’t enough time for the dog to become confident or acclimated to the myriad of novel things in his environment.
56. Can I choose which one of their dogs I want?
Most good programs will use their expertise in choosing a dog for you based on the information in the application, clinician input, the type and extent of your disability, your home environment and lifestyle. Some programs may let you choose your own dog, but it’s best to leave this important decision up to the experts. You don’t want to end up with a dog that doesn’t work out.
57. Can the program train my pet dog?
There are some programs that will train your pet dog. But, ask yourself if your pet dog would want to take on the role of service dog. Consider the age of your dog. Does your dog have issues with other animals? If so, how would they react to being close to another dog in a restaurant? How would they react to being in loud public places? Often times you already know your pet dog wouldn’t be appropriate.
But, in the case that you think it could work, the program should have a system in place to evaluate you and your dog. The same criteria that is used for rescue/shelter dogs is typically utilized for your pet dog. Your dog should be healthy, have a solid temperament, and show no signs of aggression or fear.
You should have the same expectations of your pet dog as you do for a program trained dog. The program should use the same training protocol as they do for their service dogs. Keep in mind that it’s hard to be objective about your own dog. You want to make sure you aren’t making concessions in the training because of the attachment you already have.
58. Do they provide service dogs that also act as personal protection dogs?
You should steer clear of any program that claims to provide service dogs that are personal protection dogs. According to the ADA, the crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence DO NOT constitute work or tasks to qualify as a Service Dog.
59. What training equipment do they use?
Service dogs will typically wear a vest when out in public, but it’s not mandatory. The collar and leash the dog wears will vary by program, and individual. Many programs use gentle leaders, a harness, hands free leash, limited slip or flat collar.
A highly skilled and trained service dog shouldn’t have to wear a prong collar, so if a program is using one, consider it a red flag. And run in the other direction if a program is using a shock collar.
60. What process do they use when matching a dog with a veteran?
Every program uses a different method. Some use personality tests, some use their instinct, some rotate dogs through a class to determine which dog seems the most appropriate. There should be some system in place to make this determination. A properly selected dog can make a huge transformational difference in the life of the veteran, so the more skill that goes into matching, the better the outcome will be.
61. What happens to the dogs that don’t make the cut?
There are always going to be dogs that don’t graduate as service dogs. Not every dog is cut out to be a service dog. It’s important to find out what happens to those dogs. Are they released as pets? Are they given a career change? Some dogs that aren’t cut out for service dog work often excel at other work such as search and rescue or therapy dog settings.
62. What is team training like?
Every program is different in how they go about training you and the dog to be a team. Some programs have boot camp where you go to their location for a week or more. Some work with you and the dog once a week for a period of time. Again beware of programs that will match you as a team and send you on your way. There are a lot of things you and the dog need to learn together. Reading the dog’s body language is very important. You want to know when the dog is feeling stressed, or when he needs to toilet. The dog needs to learn your nuances as well so he can begin to respond to your emotions. This process should go at a slow enough pace that you and the dog feel confident to go out in the world on your own.
63. What is the public access test? And do they give it to their service dog teams?
In addition to other tests the program may perform, the public access test should be utilized by every program to ensure the service dog team is ready.
The public access test is a standardized test which evaluates the working skills of the service dog team in a public setting. Dogs must be of neutral behavior at all times in public, and under their handler’s control. Many programs make this test mandatory before they can be considered a working team.
For more information on the test, go to http://www.iaadp.org/iaadp-minimum-training-standards-for-public-access.html
64. Are their dogs certified?
According to the ADA Certifications of any type are not needed. However, many programs provide them to their service dog teams. If you are questioned by a business owner regarding the legitimacy of your service dog, the certification shows you and the dog were professionally trained by that specific program.
Beware of online companies that try to sell you a service dog certification without ever evaluating your dog in person. Since certification isn’t mandatory, these companies are just out to make a buck.
65. Can I visit their facility?
Any reputable program will allow you to visit their training facility. In fact, they will welcome it. Visiting a program’s facility and kennels is a great way to get an idea of their quality and training practices. While there, you can ask to meet prospective service dogs, observe a training class, or get a feel for how well maintained the facility is. It should be clean, the dogs should be well groomed and have ample space for training and playing.
When observing the dogs in a training session, you should see happy dogs that enjoy training. If you see dogs with a worried look on their face, shutting down or not making eye contact with the trainer, that’s a red flag that the program may be using aversive training techniques.
66. Who retains ownership of the Service Dog?
Some programs retain ownership for the lifetime of the dog. Some retain ownership for a period of time. You’ll want to find this out as it’s an important legal question. Whoever owns the dog is legally responsible for the health and wellbeing, veterinary procedures, retirement and end of life decisions.
67. Are they accredited by Assistance Dogs International?
Assistance Dogs International (ADI) has been setting standards for the assistance dog industry since 1987. ADI is a coalition of not for profit assistance dog organizations. The purpose of ADI is to improve the areas of training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs, staff and volunteer education, as well as educating the public about assistance dogs, and advocating for the legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs.
ADI accredits service dog programs, so there’s an advantage to starting your search with these organizations. They have all gone through the same process to get accredited and they all follow the same guidelines. You are less likely to find a non-reputable program if you go with an ADI organization. If nothing else, it will give you a baseline to compare other programs to. Click this link for a list of accredited programs http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/location/north-america-adina/
In September 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) amended its regulations concerning service dogs. They will only pay for service dogs in cases of physical disability. According to the VA, there is not enough research to prove that psychiatric (PTSD) service dogs are effective to their recovery, and thus, cannot justify providing the benefit.
In addition, the VA decided that in order to receive service dog benefits, you must complete a training course with your dog through Assistance Dogs International. Once completed, the VA will pay for the costs associated with veterinary care, travel associated with buying and training the dog, along with hardware required for the dog to be able to assist the veteran. However, the day-to-day costs of owning the dog (like food and grooming, for example) are not covered.
Delta Society Minimum Standards for Service dogs
VA Guide & Service dog program
Service dog programs that place PTSD service dogs
The links below are programs that place PTSD service dogs. They have not been evaluated by the author, but are listed for your convenience. Be sure to do your homework & research them thoroughly.
Links will be added, please check back.
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