How to get an assistance or support dog

I had a recent question from a follower along the lines of:

What breed makes a good assistance dog for mental health support?

There’s a lot of variables in this situation.

With support and assistance dogs becoming more popular, we want to make sure we maintain a good standard so that those who need support dogs in public can continue to benefit from this.

And I also want to say, every dog offers support for their people, even if they aren’t official – it’s part of their job 😉

As for getting an official support or assistance dog, here’s the factors to consider.

The first major factor is the dog’s suitability – keeping in mind that when an organisation breeds dogs for these roles and puts them through training, many are then deemed unsuitable and don’t go ahead. So picking the right dog is crucial.

Even when a dog is picked, it’s no guarantee that they will be suitable in the long term once we see how they cope with the training.

Sadly, most people who ask me to train an existing dog to be a public assistance dog have an unsuitable dog for this kind of job.

If your dog has behaviour problems, health issues, is elderly or has fears or phobias, they likely aren’t suitable for the pressures of assistance dog life.

What we require from the dog also depends on what you personally need from the dog and whether you require public access.

If you don’t require public access, you can choose the most stable dog possible and train solid obedience and manners so that they are a good all round reliable companion.

If you do require public access, the process will take longer and cost more, and you will need to sign on with an organisation that can approve dogs for public access.

With some such organisations you can train your own dog to the required level and have them assess and test the dog and grant public access.

With either of these options, a trainer such as myself may be able to train the dog to the required level to pass the PAT test, and then they do the assessment. Or if you live close to the organisation, they can help you with the training part as well.

The cost and how long this would take would also depend on whether you start with a puppy or an adult dog. A puppy takes longer as they need to reach maturity before they can be passed and also need some maturity to be more reliable in their training. So you would need to progress through basic puppy training and socialisation first.

As a rough ballpark, to train up a puppy from scratch would take 12-18 months and to train an untrained adult dog with no prior behaviour issues could take 3-6 months.

For comparison, to purchase a fully trained assistance dog from an assistance dog organisation can be a 2+ year wait and cost upwards of $30k.

With a rescue dog you could find a dog that already has a stable temperament and then train to the requirements. Be very strict in finding the right temperament as it is most important and if you adopt a dog with fears, anxieties health issues, reactivity, aggression or other ingrained unwanted habit, you will need to overcome that before being able to train to support dog requirements and for many of these dogs this is not possible and they are not suitable for the job. I have seen this many times and it ends in frustration and heartbreak as the dog cannot perform the role and causes more stress from the issues it needs work on.

So a rescue dog is great – you just need to be very firm that it be a calm and stable dog with no issues – they are out there.

As for breed, it will still come down to the right temperament of the individual dog. The next aspect is breed health and whether you want a non shedding coat, and the size of the dog.

There are exceptions to every rule but labradors and poodles are popular options for assistance dogs.

Again, look for a dog that has the right balance of stability, calmness and motivation for training without being so high in drive that it could work against you.

I hope this shed some light on what’s involved in getting an assistance or emotional support dog.

Woofs and wags


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