Unleash the Perfect Pet: How to Choose the Right Companion or Service Dog

By Teri Dreher, RN, guest blogger

Companion and service dogs have changed the lives of thousands of people with disabilities.

A companion dog might be a good choice for a person with a disability who needs company – someone to talk to, someone to play with, someone to take care of. A service dog, in addition to being part of the family, can provide much-needed assistance with daily living.

But bringing home a companion or service dog is a big step, and there are a lot of important things to consider. Here are some questions to think about, with the help of Kate Dalman of Herzog German Shepherds in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Should I Get a Companion or Service Dog?

A service dog must be individually trained to perform work or tasks directly related to the handler’s disability, while a therapy and emotional support dog merely provides comfort and coping assistance to an individual in some fashion.

Some service dogs, for example, are trained to assist people with physical disabilities.

Companion dogs aren’t individually trained. Instead, the principal service they provide is simply companionship, meaning they may essentially be the family pet.

What Size Dog is Best?

Big breeds are more expensive when it comes to food, grooming, and health care. Also, it’s hard to snuggle them in your lap.

Big breeds also need a lot of exercise and obviously take up a lot of space. So if the dog will be a companion for someone in an apartment or condo, think small. A small dog will work just as well as a big one when it comes to alerting you to danger or helping you cope with emotional issues.

That said, a larger dog may be able to perform tasks that a smaller dog can’t. So think about what you need the dog to do before deciding on the size.

What Breed of Dog is Best?

Breed is less critical than temperament, Dalman says.

“When looking for a pup who’s able to meet the standards of a service dog, it’s important to find a dog with a medium energy level and good focus,” she says. “The pup shouldn’t react negatively to new surroundings and stimuli, and it’s best if he or she is motivated by food or toys.”

A therapy dog should be less excitable. “The dog best suited to this type of work is one with a calm demeanor who’s motivated more by physical affection rather than food or toys,” Dalman says. “Dogs like this tend to become more in tune with the emotional needs of the person or people they’re working with.”

Shepherds can make great service dogs because of their work-mindedness, loyalty, protective instincts, intelligence, strength and approachability. But Dalman cautions that they must be bred to perform service work, because shepherds that were bred for police or military work aren’t as good a fit.

Puppy or Adult Dog?

Puppies are a lot of work for anyone, let alone someone with a disability. They have a lot of energy and can be destructive. As a result, an adult dog – maybe even a rescue – might be the best choice for compansionship.

Dogs specifically trained for service or support start their training at around six months of age, when they’re past the puppy stage. There are for-profit and nonprofit organizations that train service dogs and match them with handlers, or you can work with a reputable breeder who knows both of the pup’s parents, Dalman says.

“It’s so important to first choose parents that both possess the qualities we’re looking with regard to a particular assignment,” she says. “From there, we look at how previous litters have turned out, as that will give us a good idea what to expect in the current litter. Only then do we look at the individual pup’s temperament and create a good match for the new owner.”

Will Someone Help With a Dog?

Most dogs need daily or weekly brushing, occasional baths, nail trims, and so on. Is someone available help get to vet appointments and assist with grooming?

If not, check with one of the therapy dog organizations in your area to see if you can arrange a home visit with a therapy dog from time to time. That will provide some companionship without all the work.

Where Do I Find a Service Dog?

While there are plenty of organizations that provide service dogs, a good place to start is Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a worldwide coalition of not-for-profit programs that train and place assistance dogs. Founded in 1986 from a group of seven small programs, ADI has become a leading authority on assistance dogs.

Members of ADI meet regularly to share ideas, educate the public about assistance dogs, advocate for the legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs, and set standards and establish guidelines and ethics for training these animals. There are accredited ADI member programs around the world.

Do you have a service or companion dog? How did you choose it, and what benefits have you experienced? I would love to hear your stories in the comments.

Teri Dreher, RN, is a patient advocated with NShore Patient Advocates. She is the author of How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones, available on Amazon. She would be happy to offer Thrive With Paralysis readers a free phone consultation. Reach her at Teri@northshorern.com.

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