In the mid 1990’s I had been working as a pet dog trainer and a kind gentleman with Parkinsons approached me to help him train his labrador to help him with some simple behaviors at his home. Sadly, he passed away before we were able to fully complete the training, but when his family shared with me how much the experience of training had meant to him, it really opened my eyes to how the training process itself can be helpful to people with disabilities.
Ironically, not long after this experience I was diagnosed with a condition similar to Parkinsons myself. I ended up jumping into the world of service animals for a very personal reason. I consulted with colleagues in the industry and trained my own rough collie to help me as a service dog. This led to my volunteering with a non-profit service dog organization and with the IAABC in developing the Working Animal Division.
Over the years I’ve seen increasing growth and interest in people wanting to train their own dogs to help them. I’ve also seen a number of misunderstandings and misconceptions. So here are a few myths and facts based on the questions we receive:
Myth: A person with a disability cannot train a dog.
Fact: People with disabilities vary greatly in what their limitations are. Additionally dog training is much more of a “thinking” activity than a physical one. Certainly there are some things that can be extra difficult or impossible for a person with a disability. However, there are many different training tools and strategies that can make the training process less physically demanding. Working around a limitation may require a bit more creativity, but other factors such as the person’s relationship with their dog, how much time the person practices, and how skillful the person is in communicating with their dog has a much more significant impact on dog training outcomes than the owner’s physical abilities.
Myth: With the right training, any dog can become a service dog.
Fact: Very few dogs are suited to work as service dogs in places pets are not permitted. Service dogs are special because a lot has to come together: the right temperament (which genetics has a huge role in), great health (umm…genetics again), great training and in the case of the person training the dog themselves – the owner needs to be willing to put a lot of time, energy and practice into the training process.
Myth: I can just hire any pet dog trainer to help me train my service dog.
Fact: Just like any other type of specialization, not all trainers can help you train your dog as a service dog. Would you hire a trainer with no agility competition experience to help you train a dog to compete in agility? Or search and rescue? If you want to hire someone to help you train your dog for something, hopefully the person you are hiring has direct experience in that specialty – whatever it might be. Ask a lot of questions. Be aware, training dogs for other jobs such as law enforcement or therapy work is not the same as training a dog to help a person with a disability as a service dog. Also, raising a puppy for a service dog program does not mean that the person has experience training a service dog complex tasks and for full public access.
Myth: Dogs that are trained by service dog programs are much better than the dogs that are trained by private individuals.
Fact: I’ve seen well behaved program dogs and very badly behaved ones, just as dogs trained by individuals. There are advantages and disadvantages to both programs and diy-ers. If it is done well, an individual who is training their own dog to assist them will be well-positioned to maintain their dog’s training and expand on it over time. Of course, they also assume all the risks and there is a huge time investment as well. I think the best “diy” service dog person is someone who will truly enjoy the training process itself.
Myth: All people with disabilities would benefit from a service dog.
Fact: People with disabilities are each unique and what works for one person, doesn’t help another. Service dogs can make activities of daily living much easier and can provide invaluable support to people with disabilities, however, dogs are living beings and they require a lot of work to care for. People with disabilities that are not obvious will be publicly identifying themselves as having a disability when they use a service dog and that may trigger members of the public to ask unpleasant personal questions. Parents with children with disabilities may find that they are already overwhelmed and stretched for time, adding a dog does mean adding another significant time commitment.
Do you have other questions about service dogs? Please feel free to ask!
Learn more: DIY Service Dogs Take 2