Gizmo needs a new trainer. Of all the things I thought through, researched, and planned for when I started the process of getting a service dog (SD), finding a new trainer midstream never occurred to me. Who plans that the trainer might die half way through the job, or that the late trainer’s family might dissolve the agency, or that the service dog in training (SDiT) might not get to learn everything he should because there is such a need for service dogs and so few trainers available?

For those needing a SD, there are basically three ways to get one:

  1. Apply to an agency, raise funds for that agency, pray they accept you and put you on a waiting list, and then pray you get a fully trained dog that meets your individual needs in the near future. These agencies train dogs first, and then pair the trained dog with someone on the waiting list.
  2. Find an agency or trainer that specializes in the type of service dog you need that will work with you to find and train a dog to meet your individual needs. Fundraise for the agency or pay an hourly rate for an individual. These agencies or trainers start with the person and the person’s needs, and then find a dog to match and train it as needed.
  3. Adopt or buy a puppy that you adore, train it yourself, and pray it turns out to be a great SD. (This is a legal option in the US, but not viable for my situation.)

I started out planning to go with option one. After a year of research and talking to more agencies than I can remember, I had all but given up. Because the chronic and changing nature of my disability, I could not get a traditional service dog agency to accept my application

Then I discovered option two. I found an agency that specialized in working with individuals to train SDs for their needs. They helped me identify exactly what I needed a SD to do and what type of dog would best fit my needs. Then, they helped me screen breeders and rescue pups until we found the one that met all my criteria.

Gizmo’s Six-week Portrait

They evaluated the puppy before I purchased it, and then after it was cleared by the vet, eight-week old Gizmo went to the agency for nine weeks of “Jump Start” training where he learned his routine, specific socialization situations, basic obedience, and was closely monitored for any behavior or characteristic that might eliminate him from a career as a SD.

Where option one agencies often use foster puppy raisers, or partner with corrections facilities to raise and train the puppy for the first year and a half, the agency I chose trained me to raise Gizmo so he would bond with me and would learn my needs and routine right from the start. As Gizmo met his goals, he returned to the trainer to learn new commands. Up to 50% of puppies preparing for SD careers wash out of their programs before they even start the advanced training. Gizmo made it through all the evaluations and tests with flying colors. He is now nineteen months old, and should be starting his advanced task training, but his trainer died two months ago, and we are frantically searching for one who is willing to continue the process.

Gizmo after passing his Public Access Test. (14-months old)

The biggest problem is that there are few trainers who specialize in service dogs in general, and even fewer that specialize in mobility/stability dogs or alert/response dogs, and even fewer that can cross train Gizmo to do both mobility/stability and alert/response work. That number is again reduced by geographic limitations. Most of these wonderful people work for agencies unable or unwilling to take on a half-trained dog because they are already overwhelmed with the number of people waiting for service dogs and the dogs already in their programs. Average wait time with the agencies I have contacted is six years, mainly due to lack of qualified experienced trainers and lack of funds. Conservative estimates figure that it costs approximately $20,000 to breed, raise, train, and certify a SD (although certification is not required in the US). Most people who need a SD are disabled and financially limited, so the individual and/or the agency must do a lot of fundraising.

Yesterday, Gizmo and I met with a man who trains search & rescue dogs (another amazing and life changing job our canine friends excel at). He is willing to help keep Gizmo on pace with his basic training, and he is able to introduce a few new skills, but this is only a temporary fix while we continue the search for the trainer we need……