Service dogs 101

The bond between an individual and a dog is important and special. This bond is even more important for service dogs and their handlers. There are two main kinds of service dogs: dogs that assist their handlers with a variety of physical challenges (such as mobility, vision, hearing, and/or seizure disorders) and dogs that assist their handlers with a variety of psychiatric challenges (such as PTSD).

Each service dog is selected for a specific “handler” based on the dog’s temperament and the handler’s needs. Some programs even have their own breeding programs to help produce suitable dogs. Once a dog is chosen, it can take as much as two years of training the dog to become a service dog. During that time, the dog lives with “foster parents” who are trained to raise service dogs. During this period the following characteristics are used to decide whether the dog will make a good service dog: health, potential for long life, and temperament. Basically, the dog has to have a “servant’s heart”—that is, be eager to please, easy to train, and have the right disposition.

Each service dog training program is different. In general, however, after puppies are born, they are socialized for a few months with the help of active-duty Warfighters, civilian volunteers, and/or recovering Warfighters (one program calls them “Puppy Petters”). Then the real training follows with experienced trainers; its length varies depending on the type of training needed. Once a service dog has met certain training criteria, then the dog is matched to a handler. (Check out this infographic from Warrior Canine Connection to learn more about how their program trains service dogs.)

The first week together, the handler usually keeps the dog on a leash all the time—called the “umbilical process.” This helps the dog learn who it will be connected to from that time forward. The relationship is then cultivated such that the close bond that develops between the service dog and handler provides significant benefits to the individual. Service dogs can help handlers overcome physical disabilities, facilitate social interactions, and/or provide therapeutic benefits by calming and connecting with their handler.

Since service dogs have specific missions, you can’t treat them just like another dog when you run into one in public. If you see a service dog, the best choice is not to interrupt while the dog is working, but if you want to interact with it, the most important thing to remember is always ask the handler first if you can approach the dog and wait for an answer. Don’t assume you can pet the dog. Don’t be offended if the answer is no; that means the dog is busy and working. Keeping this rule in mind can help keep service dogs (and their handlers) stay focused on their missions, not on you!

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