Written by Ejay Eisen
I'm sitting on the floor, staring dead into the eyes of a service dog candidate. I take four deep breaths very quickly and outstretch my hand. The dog stares at me, and after a moment of comprehension, he presses his nose softly and repeatedly into my palm. I say, "Yes!" but quickly start breathing in the same rapid succession, this time covering my face. First, the SDIT (service dog in training) taps my hand again. I swallow hard, working to not accidentally trigger my personal service dog, who is curiously looking on from a crate. She is concerned but wise enough at this point to know I'm not actually in panic or medical distress. She has watched me teach behavior interruption countless times. She knows that the first step is a touch, "Hey, you, you ok?" and the second step is a demand, "Hey! You need help, focus on me, the dog!" I continue my out-of-breath actions until the SDIT in front of me begins to bark and paw at me. "Yes!" I call to him and hand him a food reward and a thorough pet.
I then move into laying still on my side and ask the dog to lie down. He complies, but not directly next to me where I patted the floor.
"Uh-uh," I say, tapping closer to my body. The SDIT continues to stare at me. He then gets up, scoots over closer to me and lies down. His fluffy ears land lightly on my hand, and I give him a pat. "Good boy!" I say, rolling over into a position where I would be draped over top of him if I was applying any of my body weight, but we are just practicing, so I am just hovering in that position. I give the verbal cue "stand," and the SDIT pops up into a sit position. "Uh-uh," I say again while giving the hand signal for stand position, all while crouching, trying to both mimic the position of a handler in need without adding my body weight. The pup rises into the stand position, and I reward with kibble from my training vest.
I slowly perch my body into a squat and lay my hands across the dogs shoulders, pushing lightly but firmly. I cautiously watch him adjust his position, and his muscles brace. "Good boy!" I whisper, then I remove the pressure and bring my own body into a standing position while still leaving my hands on the dogs shoulders.
The SDIT being described will do this exact round of drills with me and my training team hundreds of times, and then even more with his handler as part of their team pairing. Team pairing involves teaching the handler with a disability every aspect of working and care of their service dog. Slowly, we will begin adding appropriate weight and pressure to the mobility tasks of helping a handler off the ground as he builds skill and muscle. When this dog has graduated from our program, he will have no less (and likely more) than eight separate tasks for his handler, who has a different scope of needs for her dog's assistance. She needs signals for certain medical onsets, relief for symptoms using deep pressure therapy, and mobility/stability support for bouts of severe dizziness. She needs a dog who can fetch her medication, her phone, her keys, water, pick up his own leash, turn light switches on and off, travel on construction sites for her job and go to concerts (both with appropriate protection), fly on airplanes for travel, be silent in classrooms and her office, and keep her safe, always. We have been training her personal service dog for almost a year, and he is nearing the completion of his training for graduation. But the work of pairing his tasks with his full time handler and ensuring they are a well oiled team will be a lifetime of commitment.
The requirements for an ADA service dog seem fairly straight forward until you get into the work of training a comprehensive service dog for a person with a disability. A service dog is a dog that is comprehensively trained to perform a minimum of three tasks directly related to a defined disability (yes, there is a qualifying list). Most of the service dogs that I am lucky enough to know, and all of the ones that Ruff Translating trains, have a minimum of five tasks. A thorough training program will generally run for 12 to 18 months from basic commands up through task training, but it can be more or less depending on the needs of the person with a disability, as well as the dog's temperament, learning style, the skill of trainer, etc. It is perfectly legal for an individual to train their own service dog, but we do not recommend going it alone. Mostly, this is the case because we want anyone with a disability to have the BEST service dog they can, and we spend our lives studying the science of dog training. We are more than happy to partner with clients who want to do some of their own training and prefer to develop a custom training plan individually for those who want more engagement in their service dog work.
One of the most common things that I hear traveling about the world with a service dog at my side is, "Ugh, I wish I could take my dog everywhere. You are so lucky!" Any time I hear this, my entire body goes rigid, and I swallow the acid retort on the edge of my tongue (admittedly, sometimes I don't). The commitment of a service dog is substantial. Not only because of the time, money, and emotional labor of training, but we have to have the appropriate gear, and I plan my life around making sure both of our needs are always met. If she is sick, I stay home. If she is tired, I stay home. I can not function fully in public without my service dog. I tried unsuccessfully for years to do the tasks she does for me. I am lucky that I am a dog trainer and that I managed to rehabilitate a purebred Australian shepherd that was surrendered over enthusiastic behavior that resembled a shark on a pogo stick when we first met.
To clarify, I own and trained a rescue dog to be my full time medical alert and response service dog. So, should this be the primary model of service dog training? I don't think so.
I am in the unique position as a dog trainer with a disability and a working service dog. Even more so, one of our primary specialties at Ruff Translating is working with recently adopted rescue dogs, in particular, highly anxious and sometimes aggressive rescue dogs. This has given me a lot of time to both research and reflect on the common adage of "adopt, don't shop".
There are a lot reasons that this is a false narrative, and there is a lot of reading you can do about the profitability of rescue culture, the way in which it sometimes can create further income streams for puppy mills, and the lack of behavioral histories that are gathered. What I will say is that when folks come to our doorstep, they are often at their wits' end in a very short amount of time. I love rescue dogs -- I love all dogs -- but I do not support rescue culture that does not inherently work with appropriate behavioral screening processes, have a lifetime return policy, or rescues that do not support and understand behavioral euthanasia. I am not willing to debate these points. I have sat on the floor with too many dog parents, sobbing with them, as we have had to say goodbye to a rescue because they came to them too injured -- either behaviorally or physically. Endless resources and top of the line training or medical care can not rehabilitate every dog. We do not know enough about how dog brains operate to be able to solve every problem, and sometimes the management of a highly aggressive dog leads to a quality of life that is not acceptable for either the dog or the person.
Recently, the lead trainer at Ruff Translating found herself in an online debate with a likely well meaning, but highly uniformed individual arguing the case for all service dogs to come from rescues. We are here as your resource to set the record straight.
This is a terrible idea.
Service dog training is a substantial investment, costing their handlers tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the training. Even when you can find that cost covered by non-profits who specialize in assisting those with disabilities, the cost to the training organization or the non-profit remains the same. The "profit" margin on training these dogs is nearly non-existent, but their value is well worth the work. The intensity, the exacting nature of the training needed, and the skill set of the trainer are simultaneously in short supply and high demand.
Dog behavior is not simply a result of training or of genetics but a combination of all of that and then some. Lifestyle, early formative experiences, genetics, training tactics, exercise, diet -- the list of factors that influence behavior goes on and on. When I am looking for a potential next candidate, I need as much information as possible because I am working to train a working medical device and a stable, eager to work, happy critter who is strongly bonded to their handler. Dog behavior is even influenced by the way in which they are weaned as puppies. I have a moral obligation as a service dog trainer to ensure the highest success rate possible, both from a fiscal perspective and as an ally to those with disabilities eligible for a service dog. Sometimes this means I can screen a rescue puppy (in this scenario, a puppy is under 10 months of age) and see all of the temperament requirements, only to see a developmental or physical issue pop up six months into training, and the dog is not longer a candidate for service dog work. Finding a rescue dog that even meets the initial criteria is incredibly challenging, especially when you can't screen the parents for potential temperament or health issues. It's a best guess with very little assurance. Even an educated guess is wrong a significant portion of the time, at the cost of both the dog and the person who they were intended to help.
People with disabilities are not obligated to perform a social good (assuming that rescuing is a social good, which there are many conversations to have) in order to obtain a service dog. In fact, we should be working to make more service dogs easily available to people with disabilities. We do not do this by throwing dogs that are not temperamentally prepared to work in this way into SDIT programs. We do this by making sure that folks with disabilities have living wages and social programs that support their access to appropriate care. We do this by building organizations that pay professional trainers to assist and train service dogs at reduced or no cost to clients. We also do this by realizing that responsible breeders are integral to service dog programs. Responsible breeders have genetic testing, are familiar with behavior screening, and select lines for temperament. The responsible breeders we work with also have a lifetime re-homing policy where they accept all of their dogs back if needed. There are so many fewer surprises with a well bred dog, specifically in regards to service dog training. I can build a relationship with a breeder I trust and work with them to find the right dog for a potential handler with everything from the dog's weight -- it's crucial for mobility tasks because you must have a dog that is appropriately sized for stability support -- to coat length, to a predisposition to fetching or other tasks we can mold into disability support.
Responsible breeders screen homes thoroughly. They also screen dog trainers who run service dog programs thoroughly. I have a relationship with one breeder who gives us a puppy ahead of training, and we do not pay the purchase price until the dog has passed all of its training and found a handler. This allows us to help a client fundraise in a myriad of ways for their service dog as a partnership. As a newer program, this is an invaluable connection. I may be able to build a similar relationship with a rescue, but without all of the knowledge of what that dog has experienced.
Training rescues with wonderful temperaments, as well as behavioral issues, is one of my greatest joys and one of the most worthwhile endeavors of my profession. But that does not mean that a rescue dog is for every owner. It is inherently ableist to assume that a disabled person has to adopt a dog with no knowledge of their history or genetics and force it to become a working service dog. Or that a person with a disability has both the capacity for rehabilitation and for the use of a working service dog. Service dogs are not pets. They are assistants, companions, and colleagues. They are also not indentured servants of any capacity. Dogs have co-evolved with us literally for thousands of years and survived because of our mutually shared benefit of collaboration. There is nothing unethical, shameful, or wrong about obtaining a well bred puppy from a responsible breeder for a service dog program. In fact, it is much more likely to ensure success for both the dog's lifetime of partnership and the handler's. The most important thing we can do as dog advocates and professionals is place dogs in the RIGHT home, not in just ANY home.
And no, I will not dignify "should dogs be service dogs at all" with an answer. If anyone would like to tell my service dog, Rio, she is forced into retirement, they are welcome to try. She's better at handling that argument then I ever will be.