Selecting Your Service Dog

Information to consider before choosing a service dog candidate

Part I: Programs

Have you considered applying for a dog selected and trained by a reputable program?   There are many advantages to program trained dogs – if you can find a reputable training organization taking new applications. Some are so overwhelmed with requests, that they are not accepting new applications.

  • Programs select dogs, socialize, train and match a dog’s size, breed propensities, personality and skills to a disabled person’s needs.
  • If a program dog fails, the program absorbs the cost of retraining or rehoming the dog.
  • They might provide another dog with lower additional costs to the handler than the handler would encounter if starting over from scratch on her own.
  • Some programs or agencies have grants and scholarships that allow them to donate a dog without cost to the disabled handler.
  • Other programs support handlers’ own fund raising efforts to help defray the costs of receiving a dog.


Part II: Selecting and Training Your Own Dog

No matter how it is done, raising, selecting, training and matching a dog with a handler costs $20,000-30,000.

It is not true that selecting and training your own service dog is less expensive, or takes less time, than obtaining a dog from a reputable program.

Searching for a puppy or suitable rescue dog means incurring the following expenses:

  • Buying it from a reputable breeder or paying its adoption fee.  Adoption fees range from $100-$500.  Buying from a reputable breeder can costs $1000-$3000.
  • Paying a professional to help evaluate multiple service dog prospects. Can cost $100-200 per dog evaluation.
  • Paying for the dog’s food, immunizations, flea and tick protection, grooming, well-dog veterinary visits, spaying or neutering, hip and elbow x-rays (after the dog reaches bone growth maturity), training classes and private lessons, toys, leashes, harnesses, collars and other training equipment, training treats, SD equipment, etc.

The average cost of raising and training your own dog is approximately $2000 - $3000 for the first year, over and above the actual cost of obtaining the dog.

The training expenses intensify in the second year; costs of maintaining your dog, food, equipment, treats, etc. remain roughly the same year-to-year for the life of the dogs.  Health care costs will likely increase as the dog ages or if he should become injured, ill or develop a chronic health problem such as allergies.

You must make provisions (savings account, purchase insurance) for emergency health care costs that can quickly run into the thousands of dollars.

All owner trainers will need to take a service dog candidate, regardless of age, through basic obedience classes.  Although you might be capable of training such skills on your own, training in a class situation provides essential distractions not easily replicated when training alone. Unless you are an experienced trainer with the knowledge to provide appropriate socialization and the skills to train SD tasks – the services of a professional trainer are essential. These run $50 - $100 per lesson or a similarly priced but discounted package of lessons to occur over the anticipated intensive training period and on-going skill refinement and behavioral advise throughout your tenure as a working team.

If the dog fails to become a service dog for reasons of health, temperament, reactivity, aggression, or fearfulness: you incur the loss of all of your invested money; the emotional attachment and heartache of failure; and you may need to start your search and training over again from scratch.

If your service dog candidate cannot complete his training, or must retire early, you face an emotionally difficult decision. You might decide to keep the dog in your home as a pet, absorbing all the costs of his food, veterinary care, and training for the life of the dog. Or, you might choose to re-home a dog in whom you have invested hope, money, time, and a year or two of intensive and expensive work.

If you start with a puppy it will take 12-15 months for the puppy to mature and become adequately socialized, before you know whether it is even appropriate to proceed with specialized training. It will take an additional 8-12 months of intensive training before the puppy is a fully trained Service Dog. Thus, training your own dog may take the same amount of time it would have taken to wait for a program with more experienced trainers, expertise, and purchase protection to have train a dog for you.  The caveat rests in the challenge of weeding out the less reputable organizations, and finding a well-respected program that is accepting new applications.


Part III: Selecting a Puppy

Puppies are cute and easy to bond with but… there are NO proven methods for testing puppies to determine suitability for service dog careers.  Even purpose-bred puppies have a high washout rate in programs.

  • Puppies’ personalities and other characteristics may change dramatically when they reach adolescence (8-18 months depending on the breed or breed-mix, and the temperament of a particular dog.
  • Are you prepared to live with the biting, chewing, peeing and pooping in the house that all puppies do?
  • Do you have a fenced area that is safe for a dog to be out in alone?
  • Can you live with the anxiety of knowing that as many as 50% of puppies chosen for service dog training drop out due to problems with health or temperament.
  • You cannot accurately test for hip or elbow dysplasia until dogs reach bone growth maturity - which may be as late as two years of age, even later for large and giant breeds.  Dysplasia can seriously limit the welfare and working lifespan for a dog. Allergies and other chronic health issues may develop toward the end of the first two years or later. Health issues may compromise the dog’s ability to work and will likely make them expensive to support due to the need for special diets and or medication.
  • Can you afford to raise a puppy?  The average cost of raising a healthy pet puppy is approximately $2000 for the first year. That factors in only in the cost for food, immunizations, well puppy vet visits, spaying or neutering, leashes, collars, grooming, micro chipping, toys, crates, puppy kindergarten and basic obedience classes, etc. That estimate does not include the adoption fee or purchase price from a private breeder. Those costs range from $100 – $3000.


Part IV: Selecting an Adolescent Dog

When a dog is 12-18 months old, what you see is what you get. Evaluating an adolescent dog, with the guidance of a dog behavior consultant or experienced service dog trainer, over a succession of weeks, in multiple situations, gives you a basic idea of the dog’s: temperament, predatory drive (squirrel chasing or reactions to cats), fearfulness, sensitivity, sociability, aggression toward people and animals, reactivity toward new dogs,  arousal levels (toward new people or objects in the environment), food drive and trainability, distractibility, eagerness to try new things, comfort with loud sounds, and adaptability to new terrains (substrates) underfoot.

If you adopt an adolescent dog from a rescue or shelter you will have little or no information about the dog’s background or early socialization experiences: positive or negative.

The dog’s early experiences may take the form of behavioral issues that are not immediately apparent.

Almost all rescue dogs or dogs from shelters go through a honeymoon period during which their true personality or behavior issues may not be fully apparent.  The honeymoon can last 3 weeks – 3 months.

Aggressive or reactive behavior may only show up after an adjustment period, of several weeks to a month or more, during which SD training may already have begun.

The following issues may cause lasting effects, but may not be noticeable during pre-placement evaluations:

  • Previous traumatic experiences
  • Experiences with abusive humans
  • Being attacked by another dog of a particular size, color, or breed.
  • Multiple abandonments or re-homing experiences (may cause separation anxiety common in rescues and shelter dogs who were strays)
  • Malnourished or semi-feral dogs whose survival once depended on scavenging for food may demonstrate intense resource guarding even when a reliable food supply becomes available.
  • Demand barking and other behavior issues may only present themselves after the dog has acclimated to your home (3 weeks or longer).

Starting with an adolescent dog requires extensive searching to locate a suitable candidate. An evaluation of each prospective dog extends over a period of 3-4 weeks or more. Unless you are already a professional canine behaviorist or trainer, you will need to pay for guidance from an expert – for each dog you seriously consider. Extensive socialization activities can occur concurrent with basic obedience training over a period of months, followed by at least 6-12 months for specialized task training.


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Contact Barbara by email: Barbara Handelman or by telephone 802-649-5213  •  Norwich, Vermont