Today I want to discuss what to look for when choosing a service dog organization. Making that single decision can be the difference between having a successful service dog to help out you or your family member, having a very expensive pet that should never have been in a program, or being completely out $25,000. It seems today there are more and more stories of frustration and horror, and it seems much of this can be avoided by just doing a little homework. These tips are NOT specific to diabetic alert dogs, but can be applied to any type of medical assistance dog.
First and foremost, do your research. Create a list of organizations you are considering, that specialize in training/providing the type of service dog you require. Google those names, check out their sites, check out their Facebook page, find out all the information you can about them. Now Google those same names and add the words complaint, law suit, issues to the end of your search and see what comes up. If there are 1 or 2 things that pop up, but you are dealing with a company that has been providing dogs for years, I wouldn’t mark that as a red flag. After all, every now and again McDonald’s gets an order wrong. But if there is a tremendous amount of stories, issues, law suits, etc, let that be a warning. Do some investigating on your own. Now check with the Attorney General for complaints or law suits. Check out the Better Business Bureau. Don’t just go with a company because one person you came in contact with had a wonderful experience. You are potentially giving someone enough money to buy a car, and in some instances, it is money you raised from friends, families, church groups, local Girl Scout troops etc. You owe it to them to be responsible with that money. They too have a vested interest in the success of your dog. Just because they have a splashy website with testimonials doesn’t mean they are a quality organization.
Ask if the organization has their own breeding program, or if the use outside breeders. If they use outside breeders, ask who, and research that breeder. Make sure the breeder they use is putting out quality, healthy dogs. Your service dog should have all of the normal health guarantees regarding hip/elbow issues, eye/sight issues, and possibly congenital defects. This service dog should have an expected working life of 8-10 years (depending on breed) and starting off with a good quality dog will help.
When discussing their breeding program or what they are looking for in their dogs, ask them what traits specifically they are looking for? How do these traits specifically help towards that specific disability management?
Inquire about puppies being “washed” out of the program. (Washed out means they didn’t graduate into that particular type of service dog). Be leery of programs that claim to have a 100% success rate in placing their puppies as service dogs. Not all dogs, no matter how well bred, are up for service dog duty. Some dogs may have been re-jobbed. Perhaps they won’t make a good diabetic alert dog, but they could make an excellent search and rescue dog.
What level of training will the dog have? Do they have different levels? See my other post about self training/started/finished dogs to learn about the differences. If they offer different levels, what are the cost differences?
Speaking of cost, ask how much, and what you get for that money. And please understand that $10,000 to $30,000 is still $10,000 to $30,000. Whether you are writing a check outright, you are fundraising, or you are making a charitable donation, it is still coming from somewhere. Know what you are getting. Find out what is expected of you. What happens after the dog is delivered? What exactly are you getting for that money? Does it include any on-going training? At your house/city/state? Or do you need to travel to them? Does it include any supplies? Harness/leash/crate? Do they have a refund/return policy? Can you get out if you decide this is no longer right for your family or a good fit?
Ask how many dogs they have in service, and ask if you can talk to those families, and then call them. But take what they have to say with a grain of salt. And don’t stop there. Ask in forums on-line, or do more research to find other families that have this organizations dogs on the ground, and contact them. Unsolicited positive reviews speak highly, versus the organizations hand picked clients. If any of these families are local to you, can you have a meet up? Meet the dog, see it work, see how it integrates with their lives. Discuss in person the pros and cons.
Ask them what their requirements are for the dog prior to being placed. What are their benchmarks? How many hours of public access does the dog have? Will it have been on public transportation? Does it train out at restaurants, movie theaters, the grocery store? Will it have passed the AKC CGC. What specific abilities does it need to know for the disability it is meant to assist? Will the dog have spent time around other types of animals like cats, if you have cats?
Are you allowed to go to their facilities? Are they clean? Can you meet the trainers/handlers/raisers? Do they have group events you can attend? Is there a puppy class you can go to? Just as much work and effort should be placed on YOU the new handler being trained as there is on the dog. You need to know how to continue working with the dog, learning all the commands, how to hold the leash, heel, etc. A big portion of the success of the dog rests on your continued working, bonding, training and rewarding the dog. Make sure you have been taught how to do all of that. A successful service dog can become an expensive pet quickly.
Know going in that you will be training this dog on a continuing basis for the rest of its service life. This may include learning new things to help integrate it into your own life style, or “brushing up” on basics it already knows, or a combo of both. But it will need to be done for the rest of the dogs life. If the organization tells you otherwise, that’s a red flag.
Do you have other animals in your home? Does the organization allow placement if you have other dogs? If you are getting a dog to assist your child, does the organization have an age limit?
Find out what the wait time is. And if the organization has a finished dog ready for you quickly, that is a red flag (self training puppies may be available quickly). Expect a wait, anywhere from 1-3 years for finished dogs is not unheard of.
Ask to see the contract. Not having access to it, or being able to show it to someone else, or being forced to sign without having a chance to read it or show it to a lawyer is a red flag.
When it comes to researching organizations, make sure you even know what it is you are looking for. Have an idea of what this specific service dog is capable of doing. Know what your specific needs are for this dog. Does it need to open doors and pick up items? Flip on light switches? Alert to a diabetic event? Let you know when the door bell rings? Not all dogs can do all things, even within the same organization. Have realistic expectations, and understand what the “basics” for your type of dog should be. If you don’t know what these things are or should be, then how can you know you aren’t being tricked into thinking you have a well trained dog? You need to know what a successful dog should look like.
Know what the organization offers after delivery. Are they available for trouble shooting and problem solving? Do they respond to phone calls, texts, or email? Are they local? Can you go and show someone what the issue is, or leave the dog for a tune up? Do they have regular classes you can attend?
In order to make a good decision, you need to be educated. You need to know what it is to look for, and know when you have found it. Don’t fall prey to the organizations offering quick access to dogs, slick websites, and smooth talk. Sadly, when you combine a horrible disease, a great need to provide the best for your child, and an uneducated public, you have a recipe for disaster.