Starting out on the service dog journey can be an overwhelming process. There are many reasons people are looking for dogs to help with their daily lives. Training a dog to help is not an easy undertaking, especially when dealing with the disabilities they are looking for their dog to help them with.

Of so many things to consider, one of the biggest decisions to make is how to proceed getting a trained service dog. In Alberta, there are three options to consider:

– Go through one of the Alberta-approved organizations to get a trained dog

– Hire a private trainer and then have the dog assessed once training is done

– Owner train

There are pros and cons to each option, and there’s no easy answer for any one person. It is a very individualized process and decision that depends on a number of factors, including a person’s ability, finances, motivation and training skill.

Alberta-approved organizations

A grey poodle walks next to his handler, who is a blond woman wearing a red coat, black mask and blue jeans. She is carrying a plant pot in one hand, and she is surrounded by plants.

The Government of Alberta website lists several organizations that are approved to train service dogs. There are several bonuses of going this route. Training puppies can be a lot of work, and this method would provide you with a trained service dog without the feral chaos that puppies can be. The puppies from these organizations also have access to public places much earlier than an owner trained dog might. These early encounters can build confidence at a younger age and help them develop skills needed sooner. Trainers can also prepare them much faster and with more refinement than what many owner-trainers have the skill to do. Dogs coming from service dog providers also have their health checks, vaccines and spay or neuter done prior to them being homed.

The costs for organization-provided service dogs are lower than private trainers. Some organizations can provide a dog for no cost. Others require $10,000 or more to cover some of the costs associated with the dogs, their care and their training. These are typically charities that help offset the cost by donations. The drawback to the lower cost is a longer wait period.

What if a person wants a different breed of dog than organizations typically provide? Or if the wait list is too long and they don’t want to wait? Private or owner training might be a solution.

Private training

A new puli puppy is held in someone's hand. In the background there are several puppies lined up against the mother, who is nursing.

Some people opt to hire a private trainer to raise and train their puppies for them. There could be several reasons for this. Wait time for organizations can often be long, and being put on the list does not always guarantee placement in the order of being put on the list. The wait time for a service dog could be more than two years in some cases. The organizations typically pair an appropriate dog to an individual. A person may also want a specific type of dog that the organizations don’t provide.

Private trainers can help assess and raise a puppy and train it to the same level, confidence and quality as the organizations providing dogs. The cost, however, is often quite a bit higher since they are not charities, and the amount can be prohibitive for many. Costs for private trainers seem to start at $2000 per month, plus expenses for food, vet care and so on.

While service dogs trained by organizations may cost less, the wait time can be significantly longer.

Some private trainers will also offer a reduced fee for service dog services, which can help offset the cost.

The costs for a fully trained service dog can be prohibitive to many, which is why there’s also an option in Alberta for owners to train their own service dogs.

Owner training

A German shepherd wearing a blue service dog coat happily sits in a baby car seat.

This method is the most cost effective, but it is also the most work and can be a gamble if the lessons aren’t maintained sufficiently for the dog to retain what it learns. Owner training a service dog can also take longer than what a professional trainer can do. This option requires a significant amount of patience, time, dedication and perseverance. It is highly recommended to work with a trainer when taking this route, who can offer support to the handler by ensuring the team stay on track to succeed in their goals.

Owner training may not work for everyone. However, with the right tools and resources, an amateur dog trainer can succeed by going this route. It helps to have a strong support network that can step in as needed in order for the dog to build the skills required to pass the public access evaluation. It’s also important to be cognizant of the limitations a person may have to train their own assistance animal. Many owner trainers have done remarkable things to overcome those limits. The importance of being real regarding limitations cannot be stressed enough, however.

So what’s the best  choice?

There is really no right or wrong direction to take when deciding which route to go in terms of getting a trained service dog. Just like the disability these animals are trained to mitigate, it’s a very individual process that depends on a person’s situation. While some handlers have the time and dedication to train their own animal, other’s may not have the ability. It’s a long process and can be a difficult decision to make. Speaking with trainers and organizations and asking questions may help you make the decision that is best for you.

Questions? Please feel free to reach out. You can also get some insight on Krystal’s journey training her service dog, Tzila, by reading her blog entries.  A good place to start would be here (click). You can use the contact form to email with questions. She would be happy to help.

This information posted here is for the province of Alberta in Canada – please make sure to check the regulations in your province or territory, as they may be different than those outlined here