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How to choose your service or assistance dog program

There are many factors to consider when choosing an Assistance Dog program. First, you must identify your individual needs and decide if a working dog is right for you. Every person needs to weigh the benefits of partnering with an Assistance Dog against the drawbacks. Once you have decided a working dog is right for you, finding a program that suits your needs is the next step.

There are many Assistance Dog programs throughout the United States and beyond. (To find a service dog program, start with this article.) They all operate differently and it is extremely important to find a program that fits your needs best. It is recommended to make a list of not only what tasks you are looking for in your future working dog, but also what you are capable of or willing to do to acquire one. Are you comfortable with traveling across the country for a dog and having limited physical support from the program when you return home? Are you financially stable enough to pay the large fees associated with some programs or do you prefer a program that provides their services free of charge, but may have a waiting list? Can you take the time to go through training camp with your dog, which usually is between 2-3 weeks? Do you care if a program retains ownership of your dog?

All of these questions and more must be answered by an individual seeking an Assistance Dog. Not all partnerships are successful, but by doing your research and carefully choosing your program you ensure the best possible outcome and will develop a good relationship with not only your future working dog, but also your program.

Here are some questions to think about and help get you started in your quest to find the best Assistance Dog program for you.

QUESTIONS FOR THE PROGRAM: *Do a BBB check on the program*

1. Is this program a member of and in good standing with ADI (Assistance Dogs International) if they are not a member WHY?
2. How long has this program been in operation? Why was it started and by whom?
3. What training does the staff have involving service dogs and people with disabilities?
4. How many teams have been graduated through the program?
5. If there is a waiting list, how long is it?
6. Will I be required to pay a fee for my dog? If so, how much? May I make payments if I am unable to pay in full? Will you assist me to fundraise the money? Is this considered a donation, or am I purchasing the dog?
7. Will you consider applicants from out of state?
8. Do you have a contract with your graduates? May I see it?

QUESTIONS ABOUT TRAINING:

1. What types of dogs do you train?
2. Do you have age requirements?
3. Will I attend a team training program to receive my dog? If so, how long is the training camp?
4. Will an attendant, friend or family member be allowed to accompany me to train with my dog or will I be required to train alone?
5. If I am required to attend team training, is lodging provided by the program? Do you have a relationship with hotels nearby that will offer discounts for your clients?
6. Will I need to provide my own transportation during team training?
7. What training methods do you use to train your dogs? (Clicker, Positive reinforcement, leash corrections, etc.)
8. How many commands do you teach your dogs?
9. What skills do you teach your dogs?
10. May I see a layout (schedule) of what is involved with team training?
11. Will I be provided a harness/cape/leash and other equipment I may need?
12. Is there a graduation ceremony?
13. Is an interview required? If so and I am not local, can the interview be conducted remotely?
14. I have unique disabilities, will you custom train a dog to meet my needs?
15. Do you base your training standards on the ADI (Assistance Dogs International) standards?
16. What will be expected of me to graduate successfully?
17. Will your dogs protect me? Are they trained in protection? (the answer should be NO)
18. Will I be allowed to continue training my dog after we graduate? Can I add new tasks, change existing ones to suit my needs better and/or participate in other activities with my dog? Can I train my dog for sporting events like agility and competitive obedience?

INDIVIDUAL DISABILITIES AND UNIQUE SITUATION QUESTIONS:

1. If needed, are your dogs taught to do things like pulling wheelchairs, bracing, or help with balance? (not all programs will train for these skills)
2. If you are primarily a service dog program, but my needs also require guiding skills would you consider training a dog for guide work? If you are primarily a guide dog program, will you train service or hearing dog tasks as well?
3. Do you train for ADULTS with autism?
4. Do you train for young children with autism? If yes, are they skilled companion dogs and do you tether?
5. Will you allow a triad team? (Triad teams involve the dog, client and a third party to handle the dog if the client is not able to independently do so)
6. If I use a special means of communication such as a computer are you able to train a dog for me?
7. What kind of O&M training (if any) must I have before I am able to apply for a dog?
8. What is the difference between an alert dog and a response dog? Can you guarantee that my dog will alert me ahead of time to my seizures or diabetic changes? (No one can guarantee a dog will alert, and no one can train a dog to alert. This is a natural behavior of some dogs and is dependent on many factors.)
9. Will you train a dog to alert to life threatening allergens?

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE DOGS:

1. How do you match your dogs to your clients? Are they matched by personality type?
2. What breeds of dogs are used in the program to work as service dogs?
3. Are the dogs bred at the facility, are they rescue animals, are they purchased from breeders or donated?
4. Do you screen your dogs for hip/elbow dysplasia or any other health problems? How? (Hips and elbows should be certified either by OFA or PennHIP)
5. Do you offer a health guarantee for the graduating service dogs? If so, how long is your guarantee?
6. Will I be required to pay for any medical expenses that my dog needs?
7. Do you relinquish ownership of the service dog to the client or do you maintain ownership of the dog? If you keep ownership, why? Under what conditions would you remove a dog?
8. Will I be allowed to have pets in my home with my service dog? Can I have a pet dog along with my service dog in my house?
9. May I see some of your dogs and your facility?
10. What temperaments do you look for in your dogs?
11. Do you use puppy raisers to raise the dogs? Will I be allowed to keep in contact with my dog's raiser?
12. Am I allowed to choose the breed of dog I would like? Will I have any input in my choice of dog or are the dogs pre-matched?

FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS:

1. What kind of follow-up will I be required to do?
2. Do I need to come back to the program to retest with my dog? If so, when? If I am out of state, can this be done through another means?
3. Is the program available to help me with any problems I may have after graduation? What kind of support do you offer your clients?
4. If I am out of state or unable to come to the facility for help, are you able to send someone out to my house to help me?
5. When my dog retires, am I allowed to keep him/her? Will I be allowed to make the decision of where to place my retired service dog if I cannot keep him myself?
6. How often do I need to retest with my dog?
7. Do you ever hold graduate retreats or offer social gatherings for your clients?
8. Are you available for individual help if I need to work on some tasks or problems?
9. If my dog does not work out, will you provide me with a replacement dog? If I purchased the dog will I be issued a refund?

These are but a few things you will need to carefully consider before applying to a program for a working dog. Never rush into the process and always consider your options. Being partnered with an Assistance Dog is a lot of work as much as it is a blessing. Good luck!

Article contributed by community member Angie, with suggestions from other community members.