Training a service dog is a huge undertaking, not for the light of heart or for those that are not totally committed. By totally committed I mean ready to wake up at 3 am before the pup starts to whine because it needs to go to the bathroom and taking it out in the rain and in the cold carrying a treat pouch and a clicker ready to click and mark the moment the pup potties, saying potty, then treat and have a potty party at 3 AM. Then you get to repeat this every single time the pup has to go until the pup is trained to eliminate on cue so there are no accidents, YAY! You don’t get days off, or moments to just not feel like following through with marking a behavior or exercising the pup. Is my timing perfect or at least close to perfect when marking a behavior? Am I remembering every time to give my pup the release word if he decided to get up too early from a sit so he doesn’t decide his releases? Being a service dog means that when the dog is asked to sit he sits until he is released unless intelligent disobedience comes into play, but that is another can of worms entirely. You can’t halfway train the dog to accept being crated and think that will cut it. Collar response has to be 100% so that the dog gives every single time without hesitation. You need to have a dedication to this being that you are training that makes the dedication most helicopter parents have to their kids look mild, all while not creating separation anxiety and training specifically to not have it. Every response to every stressor the pup encounters needs to be measured, as in before you respond you need to be able to correctly read the pup’s body language for how pup is handling what is happening. Is his stress level climbing enough that you need to back him away below threshold? Do you understand what a threshold really truly is? What does body language even have to do with training? Do you know how to keep your pup under it appropriately? Do you have the time to dedicate to sound acclimation training every day faithfully so that your pup will not be frightened of the sounds that it will encounter in its day to day life? And this list is HUGE, I have a CD collection that most people would think was for some teenage boy back in the 90’s when in reality it is just recorded sounds of things that the dogs I work with are going to encounter. Every time I train a dog to be a service dog I spend so much time doing sound training that I feel like a kibble dispenser.
Can you make a daily outing session or two or three where you do nothing but play with your pup and mark appropriate responses to stimuli and ignore everything else, realizing that the outing itself may be just getting into your car instead of the trip to the park you planned, because the pup decides that today it is scared of the car door? When your pup hits the fear stage that made him decide that the car door was scary today will you know how to counter condition him to the car door without forcing him to just accept that the car door is not going to eat him? Do you even know what counter conditioning is and when to use it verses when to use classical conditioning? Do you know what a fear stage is and the ages to be prepared for them? How do you handle fear stages? Knowing what these terms are and when to use the correct training for the situation is going to make or break the dog. I have to stop the moment the pup shows signs of discomfort or stress to react to how he is handling this and readjust my approach. This means a 10 minute trip to the store can end up being 30 minutes or more because something just wasn’t working. Which as you can imagine makes going anywhere with me when I am training a service dog pup, a pain for my family and friends that are unlucky enough to want to go somewhere with me.
The big question here is will your nerves take it when you are out and your pup decides to have explosive diarrhea at that moment? Will you be able to remain calm and composed while you clean it up? Because no matter how well we prepare and watch, it does eventually happen that they do have an accident and we have to be professional as we manage the literal pile of poo in front of us. How will you handle the stares and people that are going to make comments about it? It’s stressful! I never get out the door without at least two trips back inside for something, I have to be prepared for everything. There is no the pup will be fine without treats, you will make it without a poo bag, or not giving yourself an extra thirty minutes to get somewhere in case the pup decides to have a mini freak out and needs to be walked through why the leaf on the ground isn’t a monster. There will be days that the pup will forget every cue you have taught them and you have to stop and go back and re-teach the pup. It could be as simple as you marked at the wrong moment, the pup invented it’s own release and you didn’t catch it and fix it, so now this is the pup’s new release from the cue. Pulling has to be addressed so that it does not ever become a habit which is super hard with an excitable puppy that wants to go see everything now! Then there is the added stress of something happening such as a dog rushing up on your pup and scaring him so badly that he becomes reactive to other dogs and he has to be washed out of training and you have to start again which is only one of so many conceivable options that can happen it is hard to fathom. Oh and you can’t forget that your immediate family and friends are signing up for this as well. You are going to be devoting yourself to training a pup, you don’t need something they do or don’t do to undo all that hard work you have done so they are going to have to follow rules with your pup like no giving treats unless you say so and when you say so. They are going to have to ignore the pup when you ask them to, as well as playing with the pup only when asked, keeping their pets away when asked and the list goes on. So are you mentally prepared for this? Can you handle this stress? Are you ready to have to enlist your family as co-trainers? They have to participate and take part in the training and upkeep every day. From the day that you bring home a completely untrained puppy till you have a wonderfully trained partner. Anyone working against you by not working with you could undo the training and commitment you are undertaking. Is this what you want? Are you prepared for the moments they don’t want to when you are sick and have to drag yourself out of bed to do all of this? Are you prepared for the inevitable well it’s your dog comment and the fight afterwards?
Then there is the financial end, which everyone always replies I can have a fund raiser for this or I have family or friends that can help me. But are you truly prepared for this? Cost wise finding a good candidate from well bred parents is not cheap. (Notice I said candidate, because you want to do this yourself not go through an organization that matches you with an already trained dog and anything can happen.) In a perfect world finding a pup would be so cheap anyone could do it. Price wise well bred dogs start at anywhere from $1500 on up to the $3500 range. Yes you read that right, and that is the low end, and I mean if you are lucky to find a pup that the breeder might have wanted to keep back for themselves but for whatever reason decided just not to keep the pup. The amount of health testing that goes in to the dogs you should be looking at is enough that most owners are not going to ever be able to afford it. They test the parents eyes, hips, elbows, heart, knees, and do genetic as well as other testing. To top it off this won’t have just been done on one generation of dogs, it will have been done on several at least three to five generations. You will have Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) results available on every generation, PENN Hip results if OFA hip was not used. A breeder of this caliber will have an extensive health guarantee replacement in their contract that will cover everything from waiting to spay or neuter till at least eighteen months to two years of age, what illness is covered by the health guarantee and what is not such as those that are related to improper feeding.
Don’t forget you have the cost of bringing the pup home, which is rather large in and of itself. Getting a crate, either opting to buy one with a divider that is movable and adjusting it as the pup grows or buying new crates as the puppy outgrows each size, can range from 60-250 dollars. The costs of collars are about 10-15 dollars each and generally last a month as the pup is growing. Treats you would think are cheap and easy to find, right? Wrong. You are training a dog to become a huge part of your life. You have to be inventive and keep the pup’s nutritional needs in mind as well as providing incentive for your pup to want to train. You not only have to provide low value treats, but treats that are medium and high value to use in situations that are harder for your pup to leave or keep focus during. You have to learn to reinforce using not only the correct value treat but the proper rate of reinforcement for the situation. Which can get really pricey considering that you have to meet those pesky nutritional needs and are going to be training your pup pretty much non-stop all day every day. The situations your pup encounters are learning moments and you don’t want to miss a chance to reinforce or redirect a situation.
Vet bills are going to be huge considering they are going to need to check all joints in the pup as it matures to make sure it can do the job. Then there is checking the eyes, heart and thyroid to ensure they are all good to ensure the pups health nor behavior is affected. By the time all of that is done you are in the 2,000 dollar range. That isn’t even counting the spay or neuter and if you have a large breed which can be up to 400 dollars, or the gastroplexy which can run another 200 dollars to help protect your pup from gastric torsion in the case of bloat. Then there are the yearly shots and titers if you intend to travel, along with monthly flea/tick Heartworm medication. Don’t forget the intestinal parasites your pup is likely to come in contacts within its daily life and the fecals you will need to verify and treat anything intestinal. Then there is your actual gear for your dog, harness or vest, boots to protect their paws in extreme weather along with the hands free leashes. Then there is emergency care, insurance and grooming. It is beginning to sound pricey isn’t it? Good, because it is. It’s not unheard of to spend 5,000 the first 2 years in just upkeep and needed items.
You can’t forget the cost of training either, which can reach into the thousands and take hundreds of hours. Finding time to do a puppy class is just the beginning of many classes you will need. There is not just teaching your dog to play nice with others, but to tolerate situations that most people don’t like let alone a normal dog. The level of obedience you have to achieve is insane and takes so much repetition and time that you are going to find yourself exhausted and frustrated. Then there is learning a whole new language to understand what your dog is feeling and saying in every situation so you never set them up to fail. Plus there is task training to help you with your disability which takes tons of patience and time.
If after all of that, are you still sure you want to do this? Can you give that much of yourself to another being? After all you are not only getting a dog, but training it to a higher level of training than most people ever think of. You are not just training a dog to be your partner, but training yourself.