Today I’m going to lay down a post regarding the process of getting your own service dog. If you’re looking for the basics, explanations, legality, and the beginning of your service dog journey you’ve come to the right place.
What is a service dog?…
There are three main types of certified (aka trained) animal supports which include emotional support animals (ESA), therapy dogs, and service dogs. Let’s talk about the differences between these types of support animals…
ESA: ESA’s can be any animal and require basic training (no accidents indoors, no biting people, no making a scene, etc.), they are exempt from Fair Housing Act (FHA) which means they are allowed in any type of housing and the fact of having one before a move-in date does not have to be disclosed, they are allowed on airplanes, and their major duty is exactly that…emotional support. Many people get ESA’s if they are struggling with things like Depression, anxiety, or PTSD. However, not all mental illnesses are considered chronic disabilities, therefore, many people asking for a service dog for depression or anxiety will get denied. I will cover this confusing territory later in the post.
Therapy Dog: If you’re in college or university you will likely have therapy dog sessions (amount varies by school). This is when a trained therapy dog comes into the facility for emotional support. Therapy dogs are also common in hospitals or outpatient medical programs. These dogs are trained at a higher level than ESA’s. They are trained to stay calm in highly populated areas, they are trained to migrate several accessibility tools such as wheelchairs, and they have succeeded at all basic training. The dog is very sedentary in these environments, they won’t jump, bark, walk fast, pull on a leash, or run. Usually, therapy dogs chill on a blanket and let people pet them for an hour or two. It’s probably one of the greatest jobs for a dog.
Service Dog: A service dog requires around 300 hours of task training which usually equals to around two years to master their skill set. A service dog is allowed in any environment the handler (owner) is allowed, by law. These dogs are considered medical equipment, sometimes we have patches on the vests such as, “would you pet a wheelchair?” to try and communicate that these animals are not pets. People get a service dog when they require a medical alert, if they are in need of mobility assistance, and/or when daily functioning severely suffers. To qualify for a service dog you must be disabled. A service dog and its handler are a team and work together to create the best life possible for both of them. Please do not touch, talk, or pet service dogs while they are working (vest is on), I allow people to pet and touch Peach whenever her vest is OFF because that means she is not on duty but please ask the handler before assuming.
Do I qualify for a service dog?…
You only qualify for a service dog if you are disabled. As I said earlier if you have mental health problems or are diagnosed with a mental illness it doesn’t necessarily make you disabled. A person is considered disabled when they cannot function at the same level of the general population. For example, my APA functioning level is 60%, therefore, I cannot work a full-time job. The government funds my housing costs due to this lack of functioning ability. I am personally on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program), I have attached the link if you think you may qualify and live in Ontario, Canada.
I want to clear up that I’m not minimizing mental health concerns or mental illnesses. They can be life-changing and incredibly hard to live with but a service animal cannot help your mental illness, they can only help you reach a functioning level by performing daily tasks. Some of Peach’s functioning tasks include; remind me to take medication and PKW (phone, keys, wallet), perform deep-pressure therapy (DPT) during dissociation and go for help if I’m in danger, she reminds me to eat, sleep, socialize, and wake up, and she has several medical tasks concerning my chronic pain such as alerting to low-blood-pressure. Peach is a psychiatric service dog and her main job is to keep me functioning. I spent 8 years in the hospital due to my disability and since I have started my journey with Peach I haven’t had 1 admission. If you think your functioning ability is being hindered by your mental illness please talk to your doctor about the possibility of having a disability and different treatment options, funding opportunities, and outpatient teams that can help you live your best life.
Some other disabilities that benefit from a service dog include; people who are on the autism spectrum, people in need of mobility assistance, people who are legally blind or deaf, veterans or paramedic/emergency workers suffering from PTSD, and people who suffer from chronic pain/illness.
Not-For-Profit Training vs. Self-Training…
Not For Profit Training:
There are so many scams in the service dog industry it’s extremely hard to find your way through the system. I know a girl who bought a service dog for $40,000 and the dog ended up biting and being aggressive. I also know several people who have spent thousands of dollars worth of training to receive either cancellation with no refund or a medically unstable dog. I want to point out a HUGE resource for literally everyone in the world, this is a legitimate service dog website that will help you find your way through the system. Click here. Sadly, the problem with company training/buying a fully-trained service dog for people with a psychiatric disability is the fact that you (likely) won’t find even one company open for psychiatric trained service dogs due to an immense amount of applications. This is why I went through adopting, company training, and then personal training with Peach. There was literally nowhere in Ontario that was accepting even an application for a psychiatric service dog. I’m not saying it’s impossible and remember that this is in an Ontario-only search but it is extremely difficult. The best way to fight through the system is to put your email into a not-for-profit’s system that trains psychiatric service dogs even if they are not accepting, it will usually prompt you to put in your email and you will get an update when they are accepting applications again which is usually around twice a year. It’s a long process with waitlists averaging around 2-years but I really want to point out that training your own personal service dog will also take about 2-years to fully train your dog. It’s really a matter of personal preference.
If you want to self-train your service dog make sure you are able to commit 100% of your time to this dog for 2 years. If you are struggling with pain, moving, or if you are starting a new treatment program within these 2 years I highly recommend holding off. Raising a dog to be of service is extremely difficult since they need a routine 100% of the time that can absolutely not be broken. I personally sent Peach to boarding school to learn basics since I couldn’t handle the physical toll of her as a puppy and now she is home for task training with basic manners. I like having a routine but I only have to follow it about 70% of the time since she knows the basics (potty training, respect, manners, etc.) but if you can’t wake up at the same time, walk the dog twice a day, dedicate at least an hour to training per day, afford the vet and grocery bills with your new family member, deal with the dirty looks when the dog makes a scene when in public because they are still in training, then I suggest putting your name on a waitlist.
You’re probably feeling discouraged from reading these two options since it really does take a toll on you and your household, but I want to point out if you are feeling like this is too much right now, you aren’t ready. If service dogs were easy to come around with no training or waitlists they would be all around us, but as you notice there really isn’t many service dogs in society. A service dog is medical equipment. If you are looking for emotional support consider getting an ESA and training it to help you at a leisurely pace. Getting a service dog is an extreme lifestyle change.
The Registry Myth
100% of service dog registries are a scam. A service dog, by law, does not have to be registered anywhere to be of service. However, if a dog is not trained and barks, has poor manners, eliminates inside, or does not act appropriately they can legally be asked to leave. As I’ve said before a service dog and ESA are different and one of these major differences is the fact that an ESA is for emotional support while a service dog is trained for specific tasks. If these tasks are not being met, you should take the time to look over and review if this dog is properly prepared to take care of you. Remember that faking a service animal makes it extremely difficult for real service dog teams because it portrays improper behaviour. Remember to put an “in training” patch on your service dog until they are able to execute all commands. No matter how legitimate a service dog registry looks, it is never necessary to go through a registry.