The question of who is in your village is an important one to ask when considering a service dog of any kind, especially an owner trained service dog.
Owner Training a service dog can be a long and difficult process, this takes hundreds of hours at a minimum, to do it right you’ll probably crack a thousand or more between socialization, obedience training, tasks, and public access work. You have to do all of that alongside a disability for which you have determined you need the amount of help a fully trained service dog can provide. You’re going to need some people in your corner for when medical conditions do what they do and unpredictably disrupt all of your well laid plans.
Here’s what a strong village might look like:
Dog Training Professionals
Trust me, whether you’re an inexperienced dog trainer, a professional or something in between you’re going to need these neutral eyes on you and your dog. I’ll be leaning on the collective knowledge of the admin team at the German Shepherd Network, courses at the Service Dog Training Institute, my continuing Fenzi Dog Sports Academy education, my local mentors, a number of local dog training facilities for group classes, friends in the owner trained service dog community, my breeder and a number of other dog savvy people I can reach out to when I get stuck or have questions. You’ll also want an impartial party who can administer your public access test.
When your disability leaves you sidelined it can be extremely beneficial to have someone in your household or very close by who can come do some basics like feeding, exercising, supervising and pottying your dog. It’s also incredibly helpful to have someone there for moral support! If you’re like me and have some struggles leaving the house due to PTSD or something similar you’re probably going to need that backup to do your socialization, training outings, and ultimately public access training.
Friends and Family Who Are Supportive of Your Decision to Get a Service Dog
They might open up their homes to you for training, go on an outing with you, help you with training setups, relieve your daily support if they need a break or aren’t available, or just be there for you! I cannot stress the value of these people enough. My Dungeons and Dragons group alone has given Fisher so many opportunities to practice traveling to new places and settling in for many hours as we play. Friends drove me down to Georgia to pick up my first owner trained service dog as a puppy and to Florida to take her public access test. People like my friend Liz went on so many public outings when my first service dog was in training. My family embraced the weirdness of outings with a dog from the beginning. Whoever these people are for you, hold onto them tight and let them know how appreciated they are.
Also consider that for many people facing disability, money is an issue. These are the people to help you get the word out and organize if you need to do fundraisers to afford the training for your owner trained service dog. Owner training a service dog may be less expensive than paying for a program dog, but it is not without significant costs. I was lucky enough to have my tribe surround me and support me financially through my first owner trained service dog and it was life-changing. Doubly lucky this time around to be in a place where fundraising isn’t necessary.
People who are going through the same process!
It can be such a relief to talk to people who understand what life with a disability is like and who are going through the same training path or actively handling a service dog. If you take classes with the Service Dog Training Institute you can join their alumni group on Facebook. The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Student alumni can search for and join the FDSA service dogs group as well as the other Facebook FDSA groups. If you search for other communities like this on the internet be aware that not every group is novice friendly and there can be bullying or other undesirable interactions so be careful about what you choose and share in some of the various groups you find on the internet. I suggest joining and observing the group for awhile before interacting.
A Trusted Veterinarian
Regular veterinary care is important for any dog and absolutely critical for a service dog at any level of training. Choosing a veterinarian can be a difficult choice. You may find yourself trying a few before you settle in with one person.
You don’t want your service dog to be afraid or resistant to medical care so it’s ideal if you work with someone versed in fear free techniques or cooperative care methods. Thus my favorite starting point would be searching for Fear Free Certified Veterinarians, Technicians, and entire practices. This was a change I made when I brought Fisher into our household and it has made vet visits easier and lower stress for human and dog alike. It’s much easier to have a conversation about medical concerns when you and your dog aren’t frazzled.
Find a person who meshes with your communication style and who listens to your concerns. Health issues can sideline an otherwise behaviorally qualified service dog, so be proactive and catch things early. You want to do everything in your power to be able to provide the care your service dog needs, this is not the place to skimp on costs. Something to think about when deciding whether or not to pursue a service dog as a medical device. Fisher is insured in order to control the costs we might experience in any given year.
I’m thankful for my new veterinarian who took the time to call me at 8pm (they closed at 3pm) to answer a follow up email I’d sent the day before regarding my retired service dog. She’s a keeper and I hope you can find the right one for you!
Your Dog’s Breeder
We don’t all have breeder, but this is for you if you do. A dedicated, knowledgeable, breeder is a wonderful asset as you go through life with your dog. They can answer questions about your breed that you didn’t even know you should be asking. They have experience in the lines that went into your dog and can have unique insights on handling particular behaviors. Some of us cannot keep a dog who washes out of service work and if you’re upfront from the beginning your breeder can be a resource for placement should that occur. In all likelihood they have vast experience with a wide variety of dogs in your breed and problems that can pop up, health and otherwise. Lean on their knowledge, you don’t have to fly blind. Choose your breeder wisely and you could have a wonderful relationship for years to come.
Other Potentially Needed Dog Professionals:
A Groomer: If relevant to your dog’s breed or the limitations of your disability.
A Highly Trained Dog Walker: You want the rules you’ve established with loose leash walking to be maintained, not undermined.
A Pet Sitter or Boarding Facility: This is important for those moments when your dog cannot be with you. Examples include things like being in a state in which you are temporarily unable to care for your dog, going to an event that your dog is unprepared to handle, or attending an event that would be unsafe for your dog etc.
Show Your Village Your Appreciation!
If someone helps you, make sure to thank and acknowledge them. This is a long process, let your people know what their support means to you! Today and every day.
Fisher and I are lucky to have a wonderful village. Who is in your village or would join it if you owner trained your own service dog?