This is a question I am asked often. I have a service dog, a three-year-old yellow lab named Isaac. He helps me with mobility problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
People seem to have a lot of misconceptions about service dogs. Some people think they are on duty all the time. They think they never get to play, never get petted, never get any attention. A trainer of service dogs was even quoted in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune as saying that service dogs are treated like slave labor. Well, the service dogs she trains may be treated that way (in which case she shouldn’t be training them because she’s doing it wrong), but that’s certainly not the norm.
Off duty, service dogs are generally treated like pets. Of course, some pets are treated better than others. You probably know people with pet dogs that pamper them and treat them like members of the family and you probably know other people with pet dogs that leave them out in the backyard alone all day long. I’m sure there are some service dogs that aren’t treated very well, but I think in general, most have a pretty good life.
Service dogs are expensive. The cost of a program-trained dog varies from program to program, but ranges from as little as $1,000 to as much as $20,000. Training your own service dog isn’t any cheaper, when you add in the cost of the dog, veterinary bills including special x-rays to make sure the dog’s hips and knees and elbows are sound, an evaluation by an animal behaviorist, obedience training classes and private sessions with a trainer.
It usually takes a long time to get a service dog. If you get a service dog from a program that trains and places dogs with people with disabilities, there is usually a waiting list of about two years. If you train your own service dog, assuming you have the skills to do so, it usually takes about 18 to 24 months.
There is also an application process. In order to get my service dog Isaac, I had to have references from people that knew me but were not related to me, from my veterinarian and from my doctor. I also had to pass a home visit from a trainer from the program to make sure my home was suitable for a dog.
My point is that if someone goes through all that, waits that long, spends that much money and passes the application process for a program dog, they are probably going to take good care of their dog. I take good care of Isaac because I love him, but also because he is very valuable and cannot easily be replaced.
When he is off duty, Isaac acts like any other young, energetic lab. He’s playful. He’s friendly. He loves to play with his toys (and he has a lot of them). He loves to climb in my lap, or any other available lap, for that matter, and snuggle. He likes to annoy my cat. He likes to greet the mailman. He loves to go for long, rambling walks and sniff disgusting things he finds on the ground. He likes to roll in stinky stuff. People that don’t know he’s a service dog would never guess he was, because he doesn’t act like a service dog, he acts like any other doggie.
The bottom line is that most service dogs are treated like beloved pets when they are off duty, but it’s going to vary depending on the owner of the dog.
Chicago Tribune. Service and Assistance Dogs Aren’t Always Living the Good Life, Expert Claims.
Service Dog Central. Frequently Asked Questions.
Also by this Contributor:
How Disabled Do You Have to Be in Order to Qualify for a Service Dog?
What Does a Psychiatric Service Dog Do? What Kinds of Animals Can Be Service Animals?