Service dogs: Taking a look at the work needed to train a dog to help those with disabilities

Dogs are cute, furry, lovable best friends, but for some people, they are more than that.

For some, dogs are lifelines.

"I couldn't imagine my life without him," said service dog handler Maria Kellerman. "He's helped me so much."

Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes. There are several different types, and tasks they can do to help a disabled handler. Some larger dogs can help their handlers with mobility, while smaller dogs can also be suited for psychiatric and medical alert tasks.

Kellerman's Golden Retriever, Bugsy, is a trained service dog. While she may look perfectly fine on the outside, Kellerman says she struggles with severe anxiety and depression. Bugsy is trained to perform tasks to help her in daily life.

"He's helped significantly like that," said Kellerman. "Probably the most consistent thing in my life."

What is a service dog?

A service dog is legally considered ‘medical equipment,’ albeit the most adorable medical equipment a person may ever see. They are defined by the American Disabilities Act as dogs that have "...been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability."

That can include mobility dogs, medical alert dogs, and in the case of Bugsy, psychiatric service dogs.

"The service dogs are really unique to each individual and what they need, and we try to train those tasks to best help, but they have to start from the time they are puppies to get the proper obedience, proper manners," said AZ Dog Sports Service Dog Trainer Debbie Nichols.

A look at service dog training

Trainers at AZ Dog Sports in Paradise Valley teach service dog classes.

Before enrolling a pup in the program, they have to assess if the dog has what it takes to go all the way. The prospective service dogs get tested.

"To determine if they have the right temperament, personality to be a service dog," said Lynn Brand. "We start them with basic puppy obedience classes, up to canine good citizenship."

Working up through that advanced obedience training in the classroom takes at least six months.

Behavior Lessons

Service dogs also have to learn how to behave in public, which can be harder than in the classroom.

"We just have to see that the dogs can behave in public, that they're not frightened by people pushing a cart, someone coming up from behind, show people how to handle the dog if they're shopping. Those types of things," said Brand.

These dogs have to behave in all sorts of busy environments, including grocery stores, restaurants, and even amusement parks. Another skill is knowing when it's OK to visit with strangers, and when to focus on your handler.

Training alongside therapy dogs

In one class, the future service dogs train alongside the future therapy dogs. The main difference between these two types of working dogs: service dogs assist their disabled handlers, while therapy dogs are trained to comfort others in places like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

For Brand, she takes her class into the kids park next door to practice.

"So the kids can learn it's important to learn how to treat and be with dogs, and the dogs learn how to do that," said Brand.

Lisa Bennion's dog, Chance, is in this class. Chance is training to be a therapy dog, and will be comforting hospice patients.

"Animals can be a distraction," said Bennion. "They can be something for us to put our attention on more than our own pain and discomfort."

Learning additional tasks

While these therapy dogs take many of the same foundational classes as the service dogs to complete the program, service dogs need to also learn some tasks.

Nichols' personal service dog, Pizza, is an expert at opening and closing doors.

"Attach a tug, so when you hit the handle, open the door just a little, then the dog can grab the tug to open it," said Nichols.

Then, there's scent training, where the dogs learn to associate a particular scent with an alert for things like low blood sugar, heart rate, and even seizures. Bugsy knows how to retrieve medicine.

Bugsy also does deep pressure therapy. For this task, the service dog is taught to lie down on the handler's lap or chest, calming down the heart rate and helping with sensory overload. This is useful for people with autism, PTSD, anxiety, and other health issues.

"With the deep pressure therapy, we do a lot of luring, so keep that treat right close to the nose, and then pull them into position, and then we really enforce that position," said Nichols.

And then, one more step

Once the dog is public access trained and task-trained, they take a service dog test, which is the final leg to completing this program.

Then, the dogs are off into the world. However, just because they are fully trained, doesn't mean there won't be some "ruff patches."

"He's a dog who wants to please, but he's still very young has a lot of energy," said Kellerman.

No dog, not even a service dog is perfect, but the bond between these handlers and their dogs is like no other.

"The way that we train them, they want to work," said Nichols." They want to come in do that for you."

And as a trainer, watching them grow together, and learn to help each other makes it all worth it.

"A lot of these people can't get along on their own, but if they have their little furry companion, then it makes all the difference for them. It's very rewarding," said Brand.

Rules in place for service dogs in businesses

Legally, businesses are not allowed to ask for a service dog certificate, and they can only ask two questions: whether the dog is a service dog, and what tasks the dog is trained to do.

Service Dog Training at AZ Dog Sports