A black lab rests her head on the shoulder of her handler, a female wearing black reflective sunglasses.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when making the decision about getting a service dog or not. As a handler myself, I was overwhelmed by the decisions I had to make before even meeting Caroline. This was the round-about process that I went through to determine if a service dog was right for me. While I’m writing it out in a way that makes it sound fairly simple and streamlined, I can guarantee it wasn’t so simple at the time. I hope that this simplifies the journey a bit for you.

I do recommend visiting the website for your province in order to find out what laws and regulations involve service dogs in order to help the decision making process. You will find Alberta’s service dog guidelines on the Government of Alberta website.

Step One: Do I need a service dog?

My health crashed. There had been subtle hints that there was something going on for years, but people adjust and adapt to their situations, and I did just that. Things hurt, so I avoided doing the things that hurt. Foods caused issues, so I avoided those, too. And then all hell broke loose and I just couldn’t anymore. Couldn’t anything – couldn’t think, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t EAT – I won’t go into my medical details, but it was a full body meltdown. After fighting with my issues for a couple of years and trying different tools and such, I started to wonder if there was a better way to deal with what I was finally accepting was a long term disability. I read articles, I spoke with service dog handlers and I asked questions. One suggestion was to make a list of my struggles, and how a service dog could help with that struggle.

-generally moving (stiff, painful)
-bending over/standing causes presyncope
-excessive scratching causing harm
-carrying items (stiff/painful hands etc)
-trouble sleeping/staying asleep
-overheating, causing presyncope
-low blood pressure and high heart rate episodes, causing presyncope
-Raynauds flare ups – fingers and toes do not warm without external heat source
-previously broken and repaired knee collapses randomly, moreso when tired
-chronic fatigue

In speaking with people and looking at other journals from service dog handlers, I was able to create a list of things that a dog might do to help. This list changed, which is ok – this was just my starting point. I made changes as needed.

-Find the elevator bank, entrances or an empty seat
-Follow a designated person such as a waiter to restaurant table, clerk to elevator, etc.
-Locate specified destination such as store in mall, hotel room or home from a distance, once all other decision points such as intersecting streets, hallways, etc. have been passed


-Retrieve dropped objects
-Find desired object like keys or phone
-Retrieve unheard dropped objects like keys , coins, or other objects
-Carry a note from the partner to another household member, searching the house to find that individual
-Carry messages between spouses, utilizing objects which signify dinner is ready or that the person needs help right away, and so forth.
-Bring phone to any room in house
-Bring in groceries
-Unload suitable grocery items from sacks
-Fetch a beverage from a refrigerator or cupboard
-Fetch food bowl(s)
-Bring clothes, shoes, or slippers laid out to assist with dressing
-Unload towels, other items from washer and dryer
-Retrieve purse from hall, desk, dresser or elsewhere
-Assist to tidy house or yard – pickup, carry, deposit designated items
-Fetch basket with medication
-Seek & find teamwork – direct the dog with hand signals, vocal cues to: retrieve an unfamiliar object out of partner’s reach, locate TV remote control, select one of several DVDs atop TV cabinet, other surfaces
-Use target stick to retrieve an indicated item off shelves in stores
-retrieve one pair of shoes from a dozen in closet
-Use laser pointer to target an item to be retrieved
-Drag Cane from its customary location to another room
-Pick up and return cane if falls
-Move bucket from one location to another, indoors & outdoors
-Lug a basket of items around the house
-Transport items downstairs or upstairs to a specific location
-Carry item(s) from the partner to a care-giver or family member in another room
-Send the dog to obtain food or other item from a care-giver and return with it.
-Dog carries a prearranged object to care-giver as a signal help is needed
-Carry items following a partner using a cane, other mobility aids
-Pay for purchases at high counters
-Carry mail or newspaper into the house


-Put trash, junk mail into a wastebasket or garbage can
-Deposit empty soda pop can or plastic bottle into recycling bin
-Assist partner to load clothing into washing machine
-Dirty food bowl [dog’s] – put into kitchen sink
-Put silverware, non breakable dishes, plastic glasses in sink
-Deliver items to “closet” [use a floor marker to indicate drop location]
-Deposit dog toys into designated container
-Put prescription bag, mail, other items on counter top


-Open cupboard doors with attached strap
-Open drawers via strap
-Open refrigerator door with a strap or suction cup device
-Open interior doors via a strap with device to turn knob
-Answer doorbell and open front door with strap attached to lever handle
-Shut interior home, office doors that open outward
-Shut motel room exterior door that opens inward
-Assist to remove shoes, slippers, sandals
-Tug socks off without biting down on foot
-Remove slacks, sweater, coat
-Drag heavy coat, other items to closet
-Drag laundry basket through house with a strap
-Drag bedding to the washing machine
-Wrestle duffle bag or other objects from the car into the house


-Cupboard door or drawers – nudge shut
-Dryer door – hard nudge
-Stove drawer – push it shut
-Dishwasher door – put muzzle under open door, flip to shut
-Refrigerator & freezer door – close with nudge
-Operate button or push plate on electric commercial doors
-Turn on light switches


-Cupboard door – shut it with one paw
-Dryer door – shut it with one paw
-Refrigerator & freezer door – one forepaw or both
-Operate light switch on wall – jump up, paw the switch
-Operate push plate on electric commercial doors
-Close heavy front door, other doors – jump up, use both forepaws

-Assist to walk step by step, brace between each step, to nearby seat
-Position self and brace to help partner catch balance after partner rises from a couch or other seats in a home or public setting
-Prevent fall by bracing on command if the partner needs help recovering balance.
-Steady partner getting in or out of the bathtub
-Pull up partner with a strap [tug of war style] from floor to feet on command, then brace till partner catches balance


HARNESS BASED TASKS – Mobility Assistance

-Brace on command to prevent ambulatory partner from stumbling [rigid handle]
-Help ambulatory partner to climb stairs, pulling then bracing on each step [rigid handle or harness with pull strap may be used to assist partner to mount a step or catch balance]
-Pull partner out of aisle seat on plane, then brace until partner catches balance [harness with a rigid handle and a pull strap, or pull strap only]
-Brace, counter balance work too, assisting ambulatory partner to walk; the partner pushes down on the rigid handle as if it were a cane, after giving warning command, when needed
-Help ambulatory partner to walk short distance, brace between each step [rigid handle]



-Bark for help on command
-Find the care-giver on command, lead back to location of disabled partner
-Wake up partner if smoke alarm goes off, assist to nearest exit



-let emergency personnel into home and lead to partner’s location
-Fetch medication from customary place during a medical crisis
-Lie down on partner’s legs if passed out


It was a pretty easy answer: a service dog could be helpful in my day-to day. This list was only part of the decision making process, though. I am and always have been a huge animal lover, and having the companionship has always been important to me. I would likely have a dog in my life regardless of illness, as long as I had the ability to care for it.

That brought me to another question that needed to be asked.

Step Two: Can I care for a service dog?

Dealing with a new chronic illness or other disability is hard. There’s so much to process, and I was relearning how to function. Everything was different and I was still undiagnosed at this point. My doctors admitted at the time that they didn’t know what was wrong. They thought there was a chance it could go into remission, but also a chance for it to progress. It was a lot to chew on.

A service dog needs to be well groomed and maintained in order to have the right for public access. They also need regular vet visits for various reasons, which can get costly. Could I keep up with it all?

Needs vary with  different dogs. While some dogs are happy snoozing for the majority of the day, other dogs need more interaction. Grooming needs also vary between breeds. This question goes hand in hand with breed selection.

What care needs does a service dog have?


-Ears checked/plucked/cleaned – as needed, sometimes 1x/wk and sometimes less
-Nails kept trimmed regularly
-Teeth brushed daily
-checks for lumps, lacerations, rashes or other issues every 2-3 days
-brushed as needed, sometimes daily for certain breeds
-professionally groomed as needed, such as with poodles or doodles
-baths as required
-Exercise/enrichment daily (1-2 hrs as an adult) *Note that I do not believe that dogs need daily walks. Walks aren’t always possible even for able bodied individuals. Inclement weather can be prohibitive to a healthy and enjoyable experience for both the dog and the handler. I believe that it’s important to switch activities up to keep the dog stimulated. This can mean going swimming, or playing with other dogs, chasing a ball, agility exercises or training. Mental stimulation can often be more tiring that regular exercise.
-meals 2-3x/day


These are just some basics. Some dogs may have more care needs, while others may not need much at all.


We already had a senior dog at home, and I was always the primary carer for the pets we had. Since Desi was elderly, her needs were pretty minimal. She slept most of the day and her playtime and exercise was short before she’d get tired again. Dealing with animals was already part of my day, so I wasn’t concerned about the care. Between my husband and I, the dog would be well taken care of. On days I couldn’t provide exercise, my husband agreed to step up.


Step Three: Can I afford a service dog?

A black lab wearing a red and orange life jacket swims in open waterPets can be expensive, which is already well known. Service dogs have extra needs that can increase those costs, which can very well make the entire endeavor prohibitive for some people.

As with everything else, costs can range. Small dogs will obviously be cheaper to feed, and the types of food will also very in price. The following is a list of very basic costs, using Tzila’s food as a starting point.

Basic needs are going to look different to each person. Some dogs may have sensitivities, some people prefer raw diet over kibble, so on. The decisions to make are unending!

I personally switch her food regularly, avoiding only salmon due to a known sensitivity to it. Everything else, however, is changed frequently in order to provide her with a varied diet and to keep her meals interesting. For dinner, I make her a mini, healthier version of our own meals, without sauces and spices. If we have stir fry, she gets a plate of raw beef or chicken and vegetables. These costs are lumped into our regular household costs and not part of her specific costs.

These costs vary widely, as do costs of various products that can be used. You will want to make a list of your own to budget according to your needs, as well as adjust the costs for the type of dog.

Basic care

-Acana kibble – A bag usually lasts between 4-6 weeks. $76-$90/bag = about $700-$1200/year
-Various canned food – a 13 oz can lasts about 1 week.  $2.79-$4.79 = $145-$250/yr
-Treats – $20-$30/month (helpful hint: check out the clearance section at Homes Alive!)
-Grooming (Shampoo, toothpaste, ear cleaners, cotton swabs, etc) – Averages about $12/month
-yearly veterinary checkup – About $50/year, plus vaccines and health care as needed (With vaccines is about $90)

One time costs

-The dog – price varies between rescue and breeders. Labs were priced around $1400 at the time I was looking at puppies. The price has since increased. For some insight on deciding between a breeder and a shelter, check out this blog entry by clicking here.
-Puppy vaccines and boosters – about $200 for the set
-spay/neuter – $500-$1000 depending on options, age and clinic
-basic supplies (collar, leash, water and food bowl, beds and blankets, etc) – $100 and up
-mobility harness and cape – $200 and up
-Joint xrays for mobility dogs – $80 or more
-Alberta service dog public access assessment – $50

Other costs

Other costs can come up, such as infections, veterinary visits, fees for boarding, etc. There are also extras you can get that aren’t always necessary but might be a good idea. It is difficult to  determine what these costs will be, as they are often unexpected even to the most prepared owner or simply not always needed. Other costs can include things such as:

-winter boots/coats
-first aid specific to dogs
-hotel fees (if the dog is not yet certified)
-boarding/kennel fees
-vehicle hammock
-title fees
-seat belt/travel kennel

Keep in mind that this is based on my journey, and someone else’s is going to look much different. It always done. Every service dog team has different needs and preferences, and that’s ok! The journey is change as you go through the process until you find that sweet spot when things fall into place. It was worth it for me, and many others I know.

I hope it is for you, too.

Part two is coming soon!


Fun fact: Krystal is made out of more coffee than blood and is better at remembering everyone else’s reminders than her own. She’s got a near unmatched addiction to plants and her indoor jungle has become her pride and joy. She claims it’s to recreate the natural habitat for the Sasquatch she lives with, but that’s just a cover for growing a jungle in the house. (Said sasquatch allows it.)