Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Service dogs are an incredible asset to many disabled people around the world. In the US alone, it is estimated that there are more than 500,000 service dogs actively working to help disabled people every day. There are guide dogs that help blind people navigate traffic, hearing alert dogs that tell deaf handlers when someone is at the door, psychiatric service dogs that help keep neurological and mental disabilities at bay, and many more. Our canine companions are nothing short of life-changing. There are, though, several drawbacks to having a service dog. They are expensive to maintain, they draw much more attention than normal, denied access while in public, being harassed by strangers, or they might bark or have a potty accident while they’re training, and the list goes on and on. I interviewed three service dog handlers with various needs and abilities to get their take on what it’s really like to take your dog with you everywhere you go.
Evaluating the pros and cons of service dogs begins before one even acquires their companion. Service dogs can be acquired through a variety of different channels, all of which have different characteristics that will work better for some situations than others. Some are fully trained in a program from birth to two years old, others are trained by their disabled owner with or without additional professional training. Carmen Pickard’s (@peak.and.me) poodle, Peak, is a multipurpose service dog who was trained partially by an established organization and partially by Pickard herself. “After picking Peak, he was evaluated for good temperament by the organization,” she notes. Having the help of a professional trainer can’t guarantee success, but starting off with your best chance is extremely important.
Gabi Johnson (@luckyandcoast) rescued Lucky and trained him herself with the help of virtual sessions with a professional dog trainer. Lucky performs both medical response and mobility tasks. “I knew I was interested in a golden retriever, so I joined a Facebook group for people rehoming them,” she explains. Acquiring a dog to train as a service dog in this way is a bit more of a gamble. “With working a mutt, I always get questions about his breed,” Johnson expressed as a con. Not knowing the dog’s parents or pedigree ahead of time, or knowing he’s coming from a specially paired litter from a program is not ideal, but choosing a dog that’s a little older enables the handler to know the dog’s personality and trainability.
Our third and final interviewee, Emily Taggart (@luckyloutag), also trained her multipurpose service dog Lucy with the help of professional trainers. “We had some bumps in the road with bad trainers,” Taggart noted, “so I owner-trained my dog.” Owner-training is becoming an increasingly popular way to acquire a service dog, as it allows the owner to train their dog specifically to their needs. This type of training also helps the pair form a strong bond and a deeper sense of respect and companionship as the dog’s lifelong owner and trainer. This can be expensive, though, if consulting with professionals often over the course of the dog’s training is part of the plan. If a person is training completely alone, it’s at the very least important to develop friendships with other people that have trained or are also training their own service dog.
Once dog and handler are paired, they are virtually inseparable for the dog’s working life, and often even as a pet after the dog’s retirement. Working through each other’s strengths and weaknesses is both emotionally and physically taxing, so much so that upwards of 70% of dogs that begin service dog training do not become full-fledged workers. “I have another animal I need to take care of, which means planning meals, bathroom breaks, play breaks… Sometimes I feel like the mother of a toddler,” Pickard said when asked about the difficulties of owning a service dog. “I have to be healthy to be able to get up, take care of my dog, and go to work to financially support him,” said Johnson, though she added, “He just pushes me to want to be on top of my health.” Taggart noted that handlers don’t often talk about the cons, which can take newcomers by surprise. “Something we deal with is being stopped all the time and asked what she is for many times a day,” she said. “People mean well, but I don’t want to talk to strangers about my disabilities.” People often are invasive and try to stop handlers telling them about a their dead dog, or even make snobby comments like "but you don't look disabled". Generally, handlers just want to go about their day but are often railroaded by eager people nearby. In addition to experiencing denied access into places because they aren't educated about Service Dog laws or had a bad experience with a fake team. Imagine just trying to grab some groceries or go to dinner with your family and having to advocate for yourself before you even get through the door.
All three of our interviewees were eager to note that even though there are definitely cons to having a service dog, the pros are far more important. “I don’t live in fear of going out due to my disabilities,” Pickard shared. “I can work and have a social life that’s not dictated by my disability.” Service dogs can aid with numerous disabilities and needs, such as picking up dropped items, helping handlers balance when walking, alerting to a medical episode so the handler can sit somewhere safe… All of these tasks and so many more help hundreds of thousands of disabled people regain at least some independence. “I can rely on my dog and his training to get me through my day,” agrees Johnson. “He pushes me to want to take better care of myself.” Taggart noted that while having a service dog is not for everyone, the right service dog/handler relationship can surely make a positive impact. “Having a service dog can also make your anxiety worse, but I would rather deal with all of that than be without a service dog. Before my service dog, I was so dependent on others, I couldn’t do anything. Now, I am able to be an independent adult and have a somewhat normal life.”
Although it can be both tiring and time-consuming, having a service dog increases one’s independence and makes living with a disability much more bearable. All of our interviewees agreed that, even though they all face different challenges, they wouldn’t trade their service dog for anything! There is a huge built-in support network of service dog handlers of all abilities and diagnoses to help one another succeed and stay motivated with their dogs, whether owner-trained, rescued, or fully-trained straight out of a service dog organization. Service dogs allow so many disabled people in the US and around the world to live more independently and have a better quality of life than they would otherwise.