Service dogs work as guide, therapy, hearing, and assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Service dogs come in all breeds and sizes. Some are mixed breeds or are rescued from shelters. Service dogs can be trained to perform an impressive range of tasks, including:
- alerting to sounds
- opening and closing doors
- pulling wheelchairs
- providing balance support
- turning lights on and off
- responding to changes in the physiological, mental, or emotional state of their human partners.
Time, care, and love
The number of people with MS who have service animals is growing every year. Still, service animals are not for everyone with a disability. They require time, money, and care that you must be able and willing to provide.
Every kind of service dog has basic needs that must be met:
- food and water
- daily exercise
- veterinary care
- care for bodily functions (i.e., walking or grooming)
- affection and attention
- ongoing training
In addition, dogs need socialization with other dogs. Here are some questions you should ask yourself.
- Do you have the funds, time, and support to meet your service dog’s needs?
- Are you able to exercise a dog and clean up after him or her? Do you have a reliable person willing to do this when you can’t—come rain, snow, sleet, hail, summer heat, or an MS flare?
- Do you have or can you raise funds to pay for regular veterinary care, as well as food, accessories, and training aids? If funds are tight, have you researched potential financial resources? (Help may be available.)
- Will you be consistent in working with your service dog and use the training techniques you will learn? Can you be patient if a training routine is not going well, and figure out ways to turn it around?
- Are you willing to make a ten-year, or more, committment to a dog?
What do you want?
You should carefully consider your wants and needs. Learn about the differences between a service dog and a therapy or a companion dog (there are many differences, including legal). Also think about what kind of support and tasks you would like your service dog to provide.
Where to start
Take time to research the process of acquiring a service dog -- the responsibilities, requirements and benefits. Be realistic about your expectations and limitations.
Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs, is a good place to start.
Make sure that you understand and agree with the policies and procedures of any agency, organization, or professional trainer you decide to work with. Here are some questions to ask:
- What is the application process?
- Is there an application fee?
- Will I be the animal’s legal owner?
- Do you follow up after placement? How and at what cost?
- What will the training process be? How long will it take? How much am I involved in the process?
- Do you offer custom training for my specific needs?
- Have you worked with people with MS before?
- Do you provide references from people who are using your assistance dogs?
In turn, you will be asked many questions about your needs, preferences, and living conditions. Organizations may request medical or financial records—make sure you ask how they will be used and who will be reviewing them. You might be required to provide a prescription.
There are no uniform standards or credentialing processes for service animal trainers, so it’s important to do your homework before you sign any papers.