My service dog, Yogi, is my best friend. He’s been with me for 10 years, 3 schools, and moving to a new state. He never leaves my side, and always wants me to be safe and loved. I’ve always loved dogs, and knew that a service dog was something that would benefit me as I got older. As I got closer to college, I decided that having a service dog with me on campus would be especially beneficial, since I would need to be more independent. After spending a few hours looking at how and where to get the best service dog for me, I was overwhelmed. There are not only so many different kinds of service dogs, but also different companies that train them! In the end, I couldn’t be happier with my pup. Everyone has different things they need their dog to do, so finding the right fit is crucial. This article will discuss some tips to make getting the right dog for you easier!
Service Dog or ESA?
There’s an important distinction between a service dog and an emotional support animal (ESA). You might find that all you need is an ESA, or you might decide you do in fact need a service dog. So what is the difference? Their jobs overlap some, but there are a few key differences. A service dog is a highly trained dog who is there to help a disabled person with specific tasks. These tasks can vary from picking up dropped items to calming a panic attack, but they are necessary for their handler to be out independently. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are less trained. They might still be designed for specific tasks, but are not trained to be able to go out into public places. These dogs are still allowed to accompany their handler on airlines, but there are some restrictions that may apply.
So which one is right for you? I knew that I was going to need my dog to go to class with me, as well as other public spaces. While an ESA would have probably been allowed in the dorms, I couldn’t have taken it to class or the dining hall. Think about your daily schedule, and where you go. If you go out and run errands, could having a dog there make things easier? Inversely, could it make things harder? Though Yogi behaves like a model service dog, he is still a dog and there are times it’s easier to leave him home. Making a list of these things is a good idea, and you can see which one covers your needs best.
What Do You Need?
This was a fun thing for me to think about while looking for the right fit. I knew there were things I wanted my dog to do, but then there were things I wasn’t aware could be done! Yogi continues to surprise me with his skills. Make a list of all the things you need help with on a daily basis. Don’t worry about whether or not you think a dog is capable of it, let your trainer handle that. Sure, your dog can’t drive your accessible van for you, but short of that? You’d be surprised what kinds of things these dogs are capable of.
Finding the Right Trainer
This is the most crucial step in my opinion. Especially if you’ve never had a dog before, finding the right trainer(s) is your biggest challenge. I spent a whole week over my spring break in high school researching different agencies and nonprofits before I landed on the one I got Yogi from. I have heard horror stories of people who went with one-person operations and ended up with a poorly-trained dog. But, I’ve also heard the opposite. I also briefly toyed with the idea of training a puppy myself, but not only is that a lot of work and time I didn’t have, I knew I wouldn’t know what I was doing. Google is your friend here. I sent out a dozen emails asking questions, had a few phone calls, and even asked a few friends who had service dogs about their company.
Ultimately, I went with ADAI out of Toledo Ohio, and am so glad I did. They were so sweet with answering all my questions and opened my eyes to everything a service dog can do. They were also one of the few agencies that not only were okay with me already having another dog, but welcomed it! Other places saw other pets as a distraction for the service dog, but ADAI saw a friend and someone Yogi could run around with.
After you’ve found one or two places you like, apply! With ADAI, this meant filling out paperwork, getting doctor’s notes, and a home visit from the agency. Some places require recommendations from friends and family, some require you to visit them. Everywhere is slightly different, so make sure you always know what the next step is and when to take it.
The Waiting Game
This is the hardest and worst part, but also the most fun! After you’ve been accepted, you’re probably going to be on a waiting list. For most places, the average wait is 2-3 years. This is because it takes time to train a dog for your specific needs. The wait can be AGONIZING, but you can take this time to prepare your home and life for your new dog. Figure out where their food dish is going to go, where the best places to get dog food are, and find a vet that knows about service dogs (yes that’s a thing). Aditionally, let any colleagues, bosses, teachers, etc. know you’ll have a 4-legged companion with you soon. That way, they can ask questions and prepare themselves and not be caught off guard.
Getting a service dog is exciting! Getting Yogi was the best decision I have ever made, and finding the right trainer is the reason why. They were extremely patient and answered all my dumb questions. Hopefully, this helps you find a place that suits your needs just as well!