11 February 2020

Unpopular Opinions, Service Dog Edition

Service dogs are not a first line treatment for anything, and they are contraindicated in some situations. 

Your doctor probably has no clue about whether or not you’d be a good candidate for a service dog. Your psychologist might, but it’s still kind of a niche knowledge set. Review the Aanderson service dog prescriber guidelines, particularly when considering a psychiatric service dog.

The handler’s condition needs to rise to the level of persistent disability and the dog must be actually, intentionally, and properly trained to assist with mitigating that disability: “I feel better when my dog is with me” doesn’t count (even if it’s true).

If technology can do the job just as well, then use technology instead. Asking a dog to dedicate their life to looking after us is a big ask.

Protection from discrimination on the grounds of disability is a right, but there are processes and legal protocols to follow when seeking accommodation: for public access, follow your province’s Service Dog Act (AB, BC, NS) or your Provincial Human Rights Act (everywhere else at the moment); for employer and school accommodations for workers and students, follow your province’s Human Rights Act. Contrary to popular belief, there is no blanket “I’m disabled so I can take my dog anywhere as long as I have a doctor’s letter” or equivalent in Canada.

Badly behaved dogs are not welcome anywhere, no matter what paperwork or identification they have. Also, online service dog registries are scams.

Owner training is a wonderful option but it is hard, time consuming, expensive, and potentially heartbreaking. Get guidance from a reliable source such as servicedogtraininginstitute.ca, your provincial Service Dog Team, and certified force-free trainers.

Service dogs should be trained with force-free methods. Shaping (clicker training) is ideal because it encourages active problem solving and it’s fun.

If you cannot put a dog’s needs before your own for a year and a bit, you are not in a position to owner train a puppy. Service dogs take a lot out of us before they start taking care of us.

For the entire first year, the handler meets the needs of the dog: not the reverse. Service Dogs cannot be asked to work until they have had a chance to grow up. This is hard, because our needs don’t go away just because the puppy isn’t ready to meet them, but it is absolutely essential that dogs not be rushed into work before they are ready – it’s a recipe for dog burnout.

Service Puppy Candidates can do all their early exposure work in pet-friendly environments: near a school or daycare, watching a construction site through the fence, walking on sidewalks and in parks, greeting people outside stores, visiting at businesses or offices where you know people and can pop in for five minutes of meet and greet. Service Puppies do NOT need to be following their person around everywhere nor should they be taken to places where they cannot safely make puppy level mistakes. Public access work comes LAST not FIRST.

A dog who trusts you and has solid obedience skills that have been practiced in a wide variety of situations will have no problem going into a mall for the first time as an adult. In fact, because they’ve had a chance to grow up and develop good self-control before being put into overwhelming situations, it’ll be easier for them. And you.

Service dogs are people too. They have bad days and make mistakes just like us. Deal.

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