Should I get a service dog? Do I owner-train my service dog? Is protection a service dog task?
PSDP answers these common questions (and more!) that you might have when thinking about choosing a service dog prospect.
The answers are expandable by clicking on the questions below.Should I get a service dog?
Not everyone with a disability is a good candidate for a service dog.
Foremost, you have to be able to take care of your dog’s needs, physically, mentally, and monetarily. You should thoroughly investigate the typical needs of any breed you consider. Taking care of your dog’s needs includes being able to take care of your dog’s exercise needs, mental stimulation, emergency vet bills, etc.
Also, you have to not mind being “outed” as someone with a disability by having a service dog. You may encounter resistance from friends and family members who hope that you will just “get better” without a long-term solution.
You have a distinct advantage if you have dog training experience, but having a service dog requires a significant amount of dedication beyond what a pet dog requires. While service dogs are assistive devices in a sense, they are far from disposable medical devices.
If you can handle these aspects of a service dog lifestyle, you may be prepared for the great benefits a service dog can offer. A service dog can help with your disability in a way that no other method of assistance can.
In addition to the particular disability-mitigating work or tasks a psychiatric service dog can do to help you, having a psychiatric service dog can help you understand your mental illness, stand up for yourself in public, and facilitate interpersonal interactions by deflecting social pressure. These animals are the reason why our slogan is “Dogs Saving Lives”!
See our “Getting Started” section for more information:
There are many ways to end up with a service dog: train your own dog (with or without a trainer’s assistance), send your own dog to a program or private trainer, and obtain a dog from a program or private trainer. We’re assuming that your own dog, whether already owned or yet to be obtained, is a suitable prospect (see the answers to the next questions for more on this).
We generally recommend psychiatric service dogs be owner-trained, because psychiatric service dogs need to establish a particular bond with the user to most effectively mitigate disabling symptoms. Being in contact with the dog makes it possible for the dog to learn to recognize (and then respond to) departures from an individual’s baseline emotional or physiological state. We recommend owner-trainers solicit the outside help of a professional trainer, no matter how good of a trainer the owner is.
While there may be a few good programs out there, we do not recommend sending your own dog away to be trained without you. Sending the dog away can disrupt the bond between dog and handler that is so essential for psychiatric service dog work.
Programs that provide trained dogs may be a good option for those few in the very rare situation of being unable to initially train a dog to be public-access-ready, yet are still both dedicated and able to maintain the dog’s training. However, this option can be surprisingly expensive, and programs that offer this option for psychiatric service dogs—especially for adult non-veterans—are very rare.
The following caveats apply to both options in which the dog is not primarily owner-trained. No matter how well someone else trains your dog, it is essential that the handler learns and is able to maintain the training. A couple of weeks spent trying to learn what the program has taught your dog can neither fully convey what they have taught your dog, nor can it allow you to wholly incorporate the training mentality necessary for your ongoing relationship. In most cases, it is better in the long run not to send your dog away, but to learn from a professional trainer how to train your own dog.
If you choose to use a program, the proliferation of programs makes it extremely important to vet the program thoroughly to avoid wasting your time and money while not ending up with a quality dog that will serve your needs.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers offers useful resources on how to choose a dog trainer:
It is important to realize that choosing the right dog to start with is of paramount importance—this cannot be stressed enough! PSDP has several resources you can use to pick the right dog. In addition to our free peer guidance group, PSDP has excellent resources on choosing the right service dog prospect.
It is essential to consult these resources before you begin your journey. You cannot afford to take this part of the process lightly.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and there are many mistakes others have made that you can learn to avoid. It’s a years-long commitment, so take your time, and put every effort you can into choosing the right dog for you.
No! Aggression toward people or animals, whether trained or unintentional, is NEVER acceptable in service dogs. An individual dog with aggressive tendencies should not be considered as a service dog prospect.
A dog does not have to actually have bitten or harmed a person or other animal for it to have aggressive tendencies. Behaviors such as growling and lip-curling are indications of aggression, and should be avoided in prospects.
A person with a disability has the great privilege of having the option to use a service dog to enable them to engage with the world in spite of significant life-limiting challenges. With this unique privilege comes a very serious responsibility to the public; service dog handlers must reasonably minimize risks to the public resulting from their use of a service dog.
This includes regular bathing and grooming to reduce allergens, public access training for controlled and safe behavior, and accommodating those with dog phobias by maintaining distance when reasonable. Above all, minimizing risks to the public means not taking out a dog that presents a risk of causing physical harm to others, including medical personnel in an emergency.
There are certain assistive behaviors referred to as “non-violent protection”. This includes work such as (non-aggressively) maintaining distance between the handler and other people by alerting the handler to the approach of a person from behind the handler, such as by a nose nudge or paw on the handler’s leg. Such behaviors that are entirely non-violent are acceptable.
Having a dog so that others are afraid to approach is not accepted as an assistive behavior, regardless of whether the dog has aggressive tendencies. While having a non-aggressive service dog that happens to look scary to others is legal, we do not recommend choosing a service dog on the basis of its looking scary. Having a dog whose looks frighten people tends to result in more frequent and severe access challenges, which works against many handlers’ goal of having a service dog to reduce the frequency and severity of their mental illness symptoms.
See our Public Access Standard for information on the types of behaviors that are unacceptable in service dogs:
For more from the Department of Justice regarding protection work in service animals, scroll down to “Providing minimal protection” under the “Service animal” definition in the DOJ’s 2010 Guidance on ADA regulatory revisions regarding Title II of the ADA:
When we say “set yourself up for success”, we mean you should choose a service dog prospect that is most likely to succeed in becoming a service dog, with the least chance of failure.
This means choosing a dog that has the temperament and (genetic) history so you have a dog that is highly suited for acceptable public access behavior and likely to perform the work or tasks you need to assist with your disability. If you do not choose a good breed to suit you, breeder, puppy or adult dog candidate for you, or the right trainer, or engage in proper socialization work and training techniques, you risk wasting your time, money, and energy, and may suffer a great deal of heartache.
There are many aspects to setting yourself up for success. Be careful to choose a breed and dog candidate that matches your energy level and training ability. Be sure to do the proper research into breeders before purchasing a dog.
Start out with a “middle of the road” dog—not overly sensitive, and not too aloof—temperament tests are essential! The Volhard temperament test can help predict a dog’s personality. It is not specific to service dog prospects, but a general test for choosing a puppy. For service dog prospects, we recommend mostly 4s on the Volhard temperament test; also, read Tracey Martin’s articles in our “Getting Started” section about how to pick a prospect.
Also, it is never too early to start learning about training, and to start training your dog. Training never ends, and a solid foundation is key. Be sure not to overdo it: “slow is fast”! Keep your dog engaged with short, rewarding training sessions, and be sure to expose your dog to appropriate stimuli so it becomes accustomed to various experiences.
For more information on how to start out with the best prospect, see:
A psychiatric service dog is a long-term commitment for disability mitigation, requiring hands-on training and the right dog. Most people make mistakes, but those who tend to minimize their mistakes and set themselves up for success often have certain histories and personality traits.
Successful psychiatric service dog users tend to have sincerely tried other mental health remedies for years, are self-advocates who pursue the learning necessary to improve (including seeking help from others), are animal lovers, and are prepared for the practicalities and expenses of a service dog journey.
For details, see our short article on “10 Traits of Successful Psychiatric Service Dog Users”:
There are many answers on this page that contain links to resources for those who would like to know more. Some of these links are to external websites, for which PSDP is not responsible.