How do we make a Service Dog? Dedicated volunteers called “Puppy Raisers” raise and train potential service dogs in their own homes for the first 12 months of the dog’s life. At 12 months of age, dogs are returned to SDV for Advanced Training. During this time, the dogs are assessed to be matched with the appropriate person on the waiting list. We use operant conditioning as our training system. This is a positive training approach that teaches dogs to think and enjoy their work. Team Training occurs when the dogs are ready to be placed with their person, and clients come to the training center for a two-week intensive training period where they learn how to work with their dog. Our autism service dog training continues in the family’s home for additional preparation to work with the child.
How much does a Service Dogs cost? It costs Service Dogs of Virginia approximately $40,000 over a two year period to purchase, raise, train, and place a service dog. There is a $50 application fee and a $500 fee for supplies at the time of placement. SDV relies entirely on funding from individuals, local service clubs, corporate sponsors, foundation grants, and fundraising events. We do not receive any government funding. We strive to place our highly trained dogs at no cost to the individual.
What’s the difference between a Guide Dog, Therapy Dog, and Service Dog? Guide Dogs assist people who are blind or visually impaired. Therapy dogs are usually the personal pet of their owner and visit individuals in places such as hospitals or nursing homes. A Service Dog is the permanent companion of a person with a disability that enables them to live with greater independence.
What types of Service Dogs does SDV train?
Physical Assistance Dogs – Our clients are people who require the use of a wheelchair full or part time, or who have a disability that involves balance or motor coordination. Clients must be cognitively able to manage a dog and benefit from the type of assistance a dog can provide. They must also demonstrate an ability to meet the needs of the dog. Children must be at least 10 years old and have adequate adult support whether from parents or an aide or both.
Autism Dogs – Autism Service Dogs are matched with a child between the ages of two and ten and their primary purpose is to improve a child’s safety. We work with parents and educators to incorporate the dog into the child’s overall educational plan and believe that the greatest success comes from the fullest use of the dog’s skill and training. Autism Service Dogs can be used to help improve a child’s communication skills, form social bonds, ease difficult transitions, and more.
Diabetic Alert Dogs — Beginning with a pilot program in 2009, with two dogs, Service Dogs of Virginia is training dogs to detect and “alert” to low blood sugar for clients with Type 1 Diabetes. By alerting when blood sugar is dropping, dogs can prevent an extreme low from happening and permit a person to manage their blood sugar in a timely manner. Future candidates for a diabetic alert dog will need to demonstrate good current management practices and verify that existing systems need to be supplemented. They also must meet our regular criteria for receiving a service dog.
I already have a dog and really like my dog. Can you train my dog to become my Service Dog? No, we find it more successful to work with dogs already in our training program. These dogs have already passed our temperament requirements and our stringent health requirements, and we are able to match each particular dog’s strengths to best fit our clients’ needs.
I think it would be cool to be able to take my dog out in public. How do I do this? Remember that no dog has access rights — only people have access rights. In most countries and states only three groups of people are legally allowed to take trained dogs out in public: people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs, professional trainers of assistance dogs for people with disabilities, and civil service providers on the job, such as police, fire and customs inspectors. No one in these three groups is legally allowed to take their “pet” or “pet therapy” dogs out in public. Stating your pet gives you emotional support is not a valid reason for access as defined by the law.
Does SDV “certify” dogs trained by other organizations or individuals? No, we do not certify dogs trained by other organizations or individuals.
Where do you get the dogs? We have built long-standing partnerships with several breeders to ensure not only healthy dogs, but sound temperament as well. We also participate in a breeding cooperative through our accrediting body, Assistance Dogs International.
What breeds do you use, and what characteristics do you look for? We primarily use Labrador Retrievers (as do most service dog providers), and sometimes Great Danes, Golden Retrievers or rescue dogs (on a case-by-case basis). The most important qualities we look for in a dog, regardless of breed, are excellent health (including orthopedics), a friendly, intelligent personality, a strong work ethic and desire to please.
What about health requirements? Health screenings are an absolute necessity in ensuring each dog we place is mentally and physically able to perform the tasks required. The screenings occasionally remove an otherwise exceptional dog from the service dog program. It can be a heart-breaking decision to remove an animal from the program, but our primary concerns are for the well-being of both our dogs and their future partners.
Are the dogs spayed or neutered? Yes! All SDV service dogs are spayed or neutered.
Is a male or female dog better for this work? Both sexes are equally suited to be service dogs.
Can I choose the breed, sex or color of the Service Dog? No. The service dog skills and companionship he/she will provide is what is important when considering placement.
How old are the dogs when they are matched to their partners? Between two and two and a half years of age. However, our trainers are watching and evaluating our dogs throughout each stage of their growth and development.
What temperament qualities do Service Dogs need? We are looking for intelligent dogs with a strong desire to please, predictable behavior and the ability to readily form an affectionate bond with humans.
Are the dogs trained to protect? Service dogs are not trained to protect.
Why shouldn’t a Service Dog be protective? From ADI: A Service Dog’s job is to make an individual with a disability more able, not to protect them. The dog’s presence is a natural deterrent. Because Assistance Dogs are taken into public places and some individuals with disabilities are not able to physically restrain their dogs, the Assistance Dog must be safe for the public. Many dogs, especially working breeds, will sense their owner’s disability and their vulnerability. These dogs can learn on their own to protect at inappropriate times. This can be compounded by an individual who doesn’t recognize that they are unconsciously encouraging this behavior.
How long does a recipient care for the dog? A recipient is responsible for the daily needs of the service dog and its medical expenses for as long as the service dog is with the recipient.
How long can a Service Dog work? Service dogs in good health work until approximately 10 years of age. A very high quality food, excellent veterinary care, exercise, grooming, and plenty of love and attention all help to increase the working life of a service dog.
Is it okay to pet a Service Dog? Service animals working in public should not be petted because it could distract from their focus on their partner. It is best to always ask before petting and please, be willing to respect the person if they say no.
Who owns the Service Dog? Service Dogs of Virginia, Inc. maintains ownership of the service dog for the first year of the partnership of the team. A recipient is responsible for the service dog’s care and maintenance including food, toys, and veterinary services.
What happens to a Service Dog when he or she retires? Retirement is an emotional time for both the human partner and the dog, after having worked so closely together for so many years. Retired service dogs are welcome to live out their retirement with their partner; some people may choose to allow a family member or close friend to adopt the retiree. If the graduate so chooses, SDV can assist them in finding an appropriate retirement home for their friend’s golden years.