I receive many questions about service dogs for children with different types of disabilities. Occasionally I receive calls from frantic parents who acquired a dog to train as a service dog and the dog’s behavior is posing challenges or worse, the dog is showing aggression towards the child. Determining whether a service dog is right for a child needs to be done very carefully.
Things to consider when determining whether a service dog is right for your child:
- Research on service dogs for children is minimal. At the moment there is much more research on the benefits of service dogs for some types of disabilities than others and the larger studies were done on adults. Be cautious when interpreting claims about service dogs’ abilities and benefits.
- Service dogs require time, exercise, food, veterinary costs, training maintenance and opportunities to play. Are you in a position to meet the needs of a service dog? An alternative is to look at whether a therapy dog program could provide the benefits of human-animal interaction without the burden and responsibility of caring for a service dog.
- A service dog is a visible public indication that your child has a disability. If your child’s disability is not visually obvious, it’s important to consider that members of the public may respond differently to your child. In some cases the added interaction with the public that a service dog inevitably provides may be a benefit, in other cases it may be a burden.
- Depending on your child’s maturity, your child may or may not be able to handle the service dog independently. Some service dogs for children are handled directly by a parent or caregiver when they assist the child. Be realistic and remember that children’s interest in things can be fleeting. A child who is mature enough to handle a service animal independently will need to supervise the dog and meet the dog’s needs. Some children may find this entertaining initially and annoying after a few weeks.
- Benefits of service animals need to be balanced with reality. No dog can be responsible for a child’s safety. Some children may not be able to safely or appropriately live with a service dog.
- Training a service dog yourself from start to finish is very demanding, it takes hundreds of hours of time and at least two years before the dog is actually working as a service dog. Most parents of children with disabilities do not have the time to properly “owner-train” (select and train a dog for service work). Think you want to give it a try? Learn more about owner training a service dog.
- The cliche “good things come to those who wait” definitely applies to acquiring a service dog from a program. Reputable and responsible service dog programs will have a wait-list given the current demand for a service animals. The fact that there is a wait is not necessarily a bad thing, it will take time to prepare your child and family to learn how to care for a service dog.