Service Dogs: How do you find the right match?
January 14, 2014 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Several months ago, after thorough discussions with my doctor, I was given a "prescription" for a psychiatric service dog. I'm excited. I love animals and have been wanting a dog for most of my adult life. I've read the books. Watched the documentaries. Questioned dog-owning friends to death. And even did a 4 year stint as a Pet Nutritionist for a large, holistic pet food manufacturer. I like to think I'm dog-savvy. Nonetheless, I'm overwhelmed with information and can't seem to make any progress.

I'll include some relevant details to help better understand the situation--I apologize if I leave anything out. I'm a male in my early-mid 30s, employed full-time (Update on my last AskM question: I did not get laid off, I moved teams and received a promotion), live alone (1 bd. apartment) and have a wonderful partner (of 3+ years; stays over on weekends; cat person but dog friendly). A few years ago I was diagnosed with a mood disorder on top of the Petit Mal seizures I have dealt with since childhood. Rather than continue to pile prescriptions onto my plate, my doctor and I both felt that a service dog could help mitigate some of the symptoms that interfere with my work. This was a decision I did not come to lightly but is a change in my life that I'm looking forward to.

After receiving the Service Dog letter from my doctor, I did not begin to search right away due to some planned holiday travel and instability surrounding my job. Now the traveling is done and my job is stable for the foreseeable future. "On paper" everything looks in order - my employer and apartment have both been given copies of the Service Dog letter, I have steady income, no travel is planned and I've saved for any medical emergencies that might pop up. I already walk/jog a few miles every day (though I wouldn't say I'm necessarily an 'active' household) and have the free time/attention for a dog.

The problem is finding the right match. My preferences are so fluid that I'm having trouble narrowing down what to look for, and where to do it. Ideally, I'd like an adult dog, and would prefer to adopt from a rescue/shelter. However, that seems increasingly unrealistic; I've spent countless hours/dollars traveling to shelters only to find cage-after-cage of Pitbulls/Pitbull Xs (wonderful dogs but unfortunately, not one I'm ready to own) or dogs that were not good candidates for service work due to behavior. The few times I have found dogs that might've been a good match, it's always first-come-first-served (I'm too late - even if I take off work early) and/or the rescue/shelter has requirements I do not meet (ie: fenced yard). I've tried Craigslist a few times but I've been met with flakeyness (backing out last minute), lying (dog is clearly a Pit in-person) and absurd requirements (weekend visitations, ect.).

I'm sort of at an impasse as to how to continue. If someone were to ask me what my 'perfect' dog would be, I would answer: Sweet, Friendly, Adult (1-5 yrs old or so), (Spayed) Female, 40-50ish lbs, Lab (or Golden Retr.). But on the other hand, I can see myself with a male dog, or one slightly larger (or smaller), or of a different breed (I'm also a fan of Blue Heeler, Dachshund...Mixes)... and, well you see where this is going again. I do have dog experience - my family always had dogs growing up (Scotties and Shelties) but otherwise this will be my first dog (hence why I'm avoiding 'intense' breeds like G. Sheps, Dobermans, Rotties, ect.) I want to do it right and I know part of that is choosing the right match.

So... I know you're not my vet/breeder/rescue worker but for those with Service Dogs (not obtained through a Service Dog org.), how did you decide? If you started with a puppy... why? If you opted for a large breed (or small)... why? And why -that- breed (or mix)? Did you specifically choose a male or female? Have I overlooked anything that might help push my decisions in one direction or another?
posted by stubbehtail to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have I overlooked anything that might help push my decisions in one direction or another?

Have you tried emailing shelters/rescues rather than going to see them in person initially?

I think if you sent a form email to several rescues, with your list of ideal traits in a dog, your deal breakers (absolutely no bully breeds or bully breed mixes, etc.), and a brief outline of your situation (no yard etc.), and asked for help in identifying potential service dogs for you, you would be absolutely inundated with replies.
posted by cairdeas at 3:36 PM on January 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Pitbulls/Pitbull Xs

When you say pit mixes, are you talking about dogs that are mutts but generally favor a pit bull/staffordshire terrier type of look and build? Or are you talking about any dog with pit bull in the mix at all?

My dog is a lab/pit mix and is basically exactly what you're looking for. He does not display a single one of the "typical" pit bull behaviors and doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body.

I absolutely wouldn't dismiss a mixed breed dog with some pit bull in there somewhere, depending on temperament.

Also, keep in mind that local shelters are very hand-wavey when it comes to labeling breeds. Unless it's a purebred specimen of a very specific breed, they will pretty much decide on a whim whether it's a "shepherd mix", a "lab mix", or whatever. Often any dog that looks like a bully breed will be labeled a pit bull. So I would definitely evaluate any given dog on an individual basis, not based on what breed the shelter is saying it is.

BTW, if you are comfortable giving a rough idea as to where you are located, people might be able to recommend specific resources.
posted by Sara C. at 3:37 PM on January 14, 2014

Also, have you tried Petfinder or Adopt a Pet? Both sites allow you to search by breed, age, sex, and location.
posted by cairdeas at 3:38 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you completely sure that it's not best to proceed with an organization that trains service dogs? I can think of a number of reasons why this might be a fantastic way to proceed, and I'm not entirely clear on why it's not an option.

Can you clarify at all? Or are you 100% determined not to adopt a dog through one of these organizations?

Edited to add: rescue dogs are awesome, and I almost uniformly recommend them as an option, but in a situation like this where it's supposed to support you as you deal with anxiety and depression and other medical disorders, it doesn't seems like a good idea to adopt an animal with an unproven history and with little to no specialized training.
posted by barnone at 3:39 PM on January 14, 2014 [24 favorites]

Just to be clear, is there a reason you're not getting a dog from an actual service dog organization? Service dogs are highly trained to do their jobs, and unless you're 100% committed to heavy duty training, you're going to get yourself a pet, but not a service dog. (Not that a pet isn't wonderful, but if you need a service dog, then you need an actual service dog.)
posted by kinetic at 3:39 PM on January 14, 2014 [13 favorites]

Oh! Here's something else. Some rescue/shelter animals are already working as emotional support animals - visiting elder homes, hospitals, etc. You might be able to find adoptable animals like that working in your area, or if you tell us what area you are in, we could help you.
posted by cairdeas at 3:48 PM on January 14, 2014

You cannot adopt a service dog from a shelter or a rescue any more than you can hire a fighter pilot by stopping in at a high school graduation. For one thing, not only are service dogs thoroughly trained but also you, the person needs to be trained to work with the dog, protect the dog in public, etc.

I feel like something is missing from your question.

If you want a pet, I would advise you to find a rescue or shelter you like, and work with them until the right dog comes along.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:06 PM on January 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Not diminishing your need for a service dog in the slightest, but given where you've been looking for a dog, it almost seems like you're treating your Service Dog Letter from your doctor as a permission slip to take a pet to work (and in your apartment if they're not normally allowed).

If you need a therapy dog (or service dog, given your epilepsy), get a therapy/service dog.
posted by supercres at 4:47 PM on January 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: cairdeas: An email is generally my first means of communicating with a shelter (I get a response roughly 25% of the time). If I get no response, I try a phone call (more successful). Unfortunately, with the exception of a few rescues (who have my info on file), rescues often tell me: "Fenced yard still required", "Adoption as Companion Animal only" and suggestions that I just keep browsing their websites/coming in to check. I do check Petfinder and PetHarbor daily--sometimes several times a day and have been able to meet a few dogs that way.

Sara C.: When I say 'Pitbull' (or Pitbull X), I'm really referring to a dog that exhibits the physical traits associated with Pitbulls and Bully breeds in general. I think Pits are -great- dogs except that owning one seems to come with the responsibility of being a breed ambassador and all the scrutinizing that comes with it. And though I know the validity of my Service Dog will be questioned at some point in life, I think people are more likely to challenge the validity of a Pitbull as a Service Dog. Also, I'm located near Seattle.

barnone and kinetic: I have been in touch with Pet Partners - a non-profit group that offers service and therapy dog resources, but after discussions with them I felt it was better for those organizations, that directly offer trained animals, to use their resources on the indigent. The tasks I need my dog to perform are fairly simplistic in nature (according to the trainer I'll be working with) and so I believe it's something I (we) can handle. I'm not against acquiring a dog via one of those organizations that offers them---I'm just worried I'm taking a spot away from someone who doesn't have the resources I do.
posted by stubbehtail at 4:51 PM on January 14, 2014

Response by poster: Lesser Shrew: I'm not sure what could be missing? To clarify, I have no intention of trying to train a Service Dog on my own. Rather, I have already sought out 2 different trainers to help me (can't decide between the 2 yet--both have trained Service Dogs of their own). Additionally, not all Service Dogs need to learn elaborate tasks. Fetching a pill bottle, for example. Training the dog to recognize a signal behavior (ie: hand wringing) and engage the owner (to break a dissociative spell, for example) is also a fairly basic task--or so is my understanding.

supercres: As I mentioned, I prefer to adopt from a shelter/rescue and so I've been limiting myself to those resources for now. Both of the trainers I have been in contact with are confident that if I was willing to wait around for the right rescue, that an older dog can be trained. And that's really why I've finally decided to reach out a see if I can get input on my desire to rescue/adopt and how that balances with my need for a service dog.
posted by stubbehtail at 5:14 PM on January 14, 2014

A point of clarity so that we do not get into derails:

Depending on what an ill or disabled person needs a dog to help with, a service dog will not necessarily need to have the kind of intensive, deep training that can only be provided by a service dog organization.

An animal qualifies as a service dog if it is trained to provide nothing more than comfort and emotional support, IF that kind of service ameliorates the symptoms of an illness or disability. (Like PTSD-related panic attacks.) More details here.

Telling someone whose illness/disability symptoms are eased by simple comfort, that they are doing nothing more than unjustly bringing their pet to work, is akin to telling someone with an invisible disability like seizure disorder that they're doing something wrong by parking in a disabled parking space. Not all dogs need to be able to lead a blind person across a city in order to be a legitimate service dog.
posted by cairdeas at 5:29 PM on January 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

The tasks I need my dog to perform are fairly simplistic in nature (according to the trainer I'll be working with)...

Why not ask the trainer to help you find a dog? If the trainer has an understanding of your needs, and he/she will be training the dog (and you), then he/she is ideally positioned to help you find an appropriate animal.
posted by grounded at 6:10 PM on January 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

grounded has it. Choose a trainer, maybe take a day off work if necessary, and visit the shelter with them. You're obviously really invested in this process, and I'll bet the pressure is making it even harder to evaluate the dogs you're meeting. There are plenty of homeless adult dogs out there, and your trainer will help you evaluate the dog as an individual that fits your needs rather than something that has to fit a lot of nebulous criteria.
posted by theweasel at 6:25 PM on January 14, 2014

Just get the service dog. You need a service dog, there are organizations that train service dogs, that's what they're there for, and by paying for the trained dog (or having it paid for) you'll be supporting the organization. If only poor people got service dogs then there'd be nobody to pay for them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:25 PM on January 14, 2014

I have a family member with a service dog from Canine Parters for Life in Pennsylvania. The organization works with people from around the country. If you need, and qualify for, a legitimate service dog then you should get it from a legitimate organization that trains them. These dogs need a different skill set than regular pets and these folks are the best people to help you. Incidentally, CPL work with seizure alert dogs too.
posted by blue_bicycle at 6:40 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing you might do is instead of contacting the big shelters, try to find the small mom and pop orgs that mostly rescue animals on Death Row from the pound and who do a lot of fostering with volunteers who open up their homes. I don't know if it's the same for dogs as it is for cats, but I ended up getting my cats this way - I found two cats being fostered by two volunteers for a very bare-bones org on and emailed the foster parents explaining my needs and interest in their cats - it turned out those two were already rehomed by that point but the foster family directed me to another foster family they know that was still looking for a family for cats that perfectly matched my needs. Maybe your luck will swing the same way?
posted by joan_holloway at 7:36 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: You are working with a trainer - thanks for the update. This puts things in a better context.

I agree with grounded. The trainer should be helping you. Possibly, the trainer wants to empower you or have you take ownership of the task or some such and doesn't realize you need more help.

The temperament required for a working dog is a pretty high bar. You need a dog who is on call 24-7 and your trainer should be better equipped to assess a potential partner.

If it helps, btw, many organizations eschew puppyraisers and ourebreds and so forth and recruit adult dogs from shelters.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:48 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: Also, as far as the tasks being pretty simple. I suspect this means compared to what service dogs for blind, deaf, or quadriplegic do. Just the work of being out and about and being on task in a wide variety of situations is a tall order. And the dog will have to be his own boss in many ways - that's tough for many people.

Say your dog decides to alert, and say you think he's overreacting for reason X - the dog has veto power and he needs the confidence to insist. That's a lot of responsibility.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:55 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just get the service dog. You need a service dog, there are organizations that train service dogs, that's what they're there for, and by paying for the trained dog (or having it paid for) you'll be supporting the organization. If only poor people got service dogs then there'd be nobody to pay for them.

Buying a service dog if you don't qualify for financial assistance can be very expensive, like $20K expensive. Many organizations also have years-long waiting lists. Finding a rescue dog and training it to be a service dog in collaboration with a trainer is a Thing People Do. Trainers who specialize in this actually argue that having the disabled person heavily involved in training can help the dog perform better as a service dog because the dog develops a stronger bond with the handler. There are books on how to train a service dog as a disabled person; these books specifically address the common belief that a disabled person is not competent to train a service dog - such beliefs are often rooted in negative stereotypes of disabled people. Owner-trained service dogs regularly pass the service dog certification exams offered by some service dog organizations. Suggesting that anyone who trains their own dog must not have a "real" service dog but just a pet reflects a misunderstanding of how many service dogs are trained and comes across as questioning whether the poster has a "real" disability. If you know so little about service dog training that you can't answer the poster's question without telling him/her that s/he must be doing it wrong, please don't comment in this thread.

To answer the question: as mentioned above, you really want to work with a trainer on this. There are lots of rescue groups that are kind of snooty about rejecting most people but who will take you seriously if you're working with a trainer. This kind of sucks, but that's how it works. Your trainer should also be heavily involved in helping you find the right match, doing temperament testing on dogs you meet, evaluating the medical/history info the rescue group has, seeing how the dog responds to you starting to train it, and so on. Really helping with finding the dog might be the most important thing your trainer does, because if you have a good match the whole process will be easier.
posted by medusa at 8:06 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

stubbehtail, I would like to contact you directly but your mefimail is disabled. If you're willing to enable it please memail me.
posted by medusa at 8:11 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: IDNHASD*. I've adopted 3 rescue dogs in the last 16 years.

Regarding what to look for: adolescents are great. They're not as needy as puppies and you can get a sense of their personalities, but they are still malleable. They're overrepresented in shelters because people get puppies, don't train them, and figure out they can't deal with them as they get bigger and less puppy-cute. I hope your trainer has you doing systematic behavior screening like this. Since you have more stringent requirements than non-service adopters, make sure you adopt from somewhere that it won't break your heart to return a dog to. Think of the first 48 hours as fostering, not adopting.

Regarding where to search: your dog is out there. Have you tried breed rescue groups? I've run into the yard requirement, and I've had it adhered to at one place and waived at two. Tell them you run/walk every day with or without a dog. If you hike or go to other places that a dog would find stimulating (e.g. beach), tell them that too. Good luck!

*I do not have a service dog.
posted by manduca at 9:32 PM on January 14, 2014

Additionally, not all Service Dogs need to learn elaborate tasks. Fetching a pill bottle, for example. Training the dog to recognize a signal behavior (ie: hand wringing) and engage the owner (to break a dissociative spell, for example) is also a fairly basic task--or so is my understanding.

A lot of trainers adopt dogs from shelters and train them to be service dogs (or search and rescue dogs or drug dogs or whatever). That's who you should be working with. You DO NOT have the experience to pick this dog alone, and you have very, very sensibly not done so. My hat is off to you, sir, for that. The WORST case scenario here is that you pick a dog, fall in love with it and it's a moron. My current dog is a lovely, lovely dog and an idiot. She would jump in front of a charging elephant for me but I would die surrounded by a pile of dog toys, bones and dirty socks long before she thought to bring me any kind of pill bottle. I know, I've had her four years and I can't train her to do shit and I used to be a professional trainer! She does wake me up when I have nightmares. By clawing my face. She can be frightened into an unthinking panic by lots of things: fireworks, cats, alcohol, things that beep, dog whistles, new furniture and the smell of altoids. Not exactly service dog material.

Either buy a service dog, rehome one who's owner has passed or get one from a trainer. No shame there, it's the smart thing to do. It costs just as much to have a stupid, useless dog as it does to have a smart, useful one, and you will love them just as much, trust me.
posted by fshgrl at 11:47 PM on January 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: There are two paths forward, as far as I can see:

1) Work with a trainer who specializes in service dogs. They can help find you a suitable match and help go through the training with you. They are also connected to other trainers and might know of a dog who has started training with another trainer (or family) who might be a good match for you.

2) Investigate more service dog organizations. They don't all charge the same amount, and some have a sliding scale fee. This doesn't mean that you're taking away the opportunity from someone else. It's not a zero sum game. It means you're supporting the organization with the resources they've determined they need to make it a feasible process. You're not cheating the system. You're executing your (VERY hard-earned) right to be in that system.

I suspect there is a tiny bit of the "but I'm not disabled enough" thought process going on here -- like you don't deserve it, because you're functional and happy enough, and the resources should be going to others who "deserve" it more. That's not why the laws and support system have been developed. You're not cheating the system, you are participating in the system that others have fought very hard for you to have!

To give you an analogy, my sister was recently pregnant, and started having contractions very early. They stopped them with medication but highly recommended that she not go back to work, if at all feasible. She was on sort of "bedrest light" and had to stay sitting or laying down as much as possible, but was allowed to go to the grocery store for quick trips or prepare a simple meal (i.e. pasta and canned sauce). She felt incredibly guilty for 'cheating' her workplace because it wasn't as though she was "on her deathbed" or literally unable to mentally do the work. But her work required her to be on her feet quite a bit, in an emotionally and physically demanding job. There was no guarantee that going back to work would cause pre-term labor, nor that staying off her feet would prevent it. She figured if she wasn't confined to her bed 24/7, she might be able to do a bit of work. But millions of labor rights activists, over decades and decades, have fought for her right to take disability leave even when she wasn't literally about to die. People have fought for her right to have workplace protection when her medical needs warranted it. People have fought for you to have a service dog even if you're not visually impaired or visibly disabled. It's not for other people. It's for people who qualify, people like you.

You're completely right that you need help finding the right match. It's not that "fetching pill bottles" or providing you emotional support isn't the most complicated series of tasks for a service dog, it's that some rescue dogs come with their own set of emotional, physical and medical issues, and you are probably not looking for a 'project' dog in that way. [I say that as someone who loves 'project' dogs, and helps lots of people work with their project dogs.]

If you want to post your location, I'll do what I can to find local organizations who train service dogs, or other resources. If not, reach out to the trainers you've met, and ask them for help in next steps.

Best of luck. Thinking of you - please update, whatever happens!
posted by barnone at 7:03 AM on January 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would search for a breed that has a history as service dogs. My cousin had Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. The breed is trainable and people are used to seeing them in harness as service dogs.

There are rescue groups devoted specifically to these breeds. For example, Adopt a Golden, here in Atlanta. Or Military Working Dog Adoptions. I'd even suggest a Standard Poodle, because they are so freaking smart.

The folks with specific breed rescues are very passionate about their work, and once they understand your needs, will work with you to find the animal with the right brains and temperament to be your service animal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:21 AM on January 15, 2014

You are going to need a smart dog and based purely on my own experience of a lifetime with dogs, I would say you should look for a working breed like a shepherd or collie or a mix with one of those breeds pretty dominant. I say this despite the fact that I have a fairly dumb collie mix but I can see where if he had been properly trained, he might have made it as some kind of service dog. He intuitively wants to help, whereas my spaniel, for instance, has no real interest in helping out the household. He'd bring me back a dead goose if I asked him to, and not damage it, but mostly he, like Cyndi Lauper, just wants to have fun.

The smartest, most able dog I've ever had was a shepherd mix; the smartest dogs in general I've ever known are in the border collie family. You are going to want to avoid hunting dogs like heelers and spaniels and hounds - and labs and retrievers; the skill set is just too different and, no offense to anyone, but labs and retrievers and springer spaniels are so very often just as dumb as paste. Lovely, sweet, adorable, fun paste!

You say that shepherds, dobermans and rotties are too intense but honestly, I think intense is what you need. Really they're not "intense" unless they've been crazy mistreated by jerks - rotties in particular are just giant slobbery bundles of love. Although slobbery is a delicate way to put it and in a city apartment they could be overwhelming. The other thing you need to reconsider is that pretty much every urban mix dog these days has at least some pit in there. That's a long treatise in and of itself, but if you have a mix, there is going to be some pit and that's all there is to it. I have a Heinz 57 that has some pit - and some hound and some chow and some god only knows what, people usually think she's a Rhodesian ridgeback - in her and she's a darling who displays no stereotypical pit behaviors at all. Would she make a service dog? Sure, she could do it but it wouldn't fulfill her the way it really would my collie mix.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:31 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you looking for one to detect your going to have a seizure? If so you need to go down a reputable epilepsy charity route.. they should spend a few weeks with you and help train the dog to spot your signs.. with pretty much 100% accuracy :) Amazing.
posted by tanktop at 9:08 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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