Service dogs have an important job – they help change the lives of their handlers and in some cases, save them. They have proven to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, alerting diabetics to insulin spikes or crashes, or helping the blind navigate in public. Its pretty accepted that service dogs make the lives of their human partners better. But what about the dog’s life? Are their days fulfilling and happy? Or are they victims of a life of servitude?
The Life of a Service Dog
The life of a service dog depends on a myriad of factors; what they handlers’ disability is, how active their handler is, and where they live. But they have some things in common.
All service dogs are trained for work. Work is anything they do with or for their handler. That could mean going to the store with their handler, doing physical commands (like picking up dropped items), or helping their blind handler navigate outside. Their work could span most of the day or just in ‘spurts’. One thing that all agree on is the dog’s need for rest and recuperation. This is done in the home when their vests come off. This free time is meant for the dog to just be a dog.
Are Service Dogs Well Cared For?
Because a service dog is so valuable – it costs an estimated $25,000 per dog – they are usually taken care of quite well. Most service dog programs recommend the handler to have health insurance for the dog, so they are not blindsided by the cost of an illness or injury and so the dog can be seen regularly. They are required to feed the dog high quality food and keep them at a healthy weight. Most programs are in contact with the service dog’s local veterinarian, so maintenance care is checked up on and ensured.
So, these dogs are well cared for. But are they happy?
A study from 2017 published by the NIH says usually, yes.
“Overall, the current body of evidence does not raise acute concern for the emerging practice of implementing dogs into therapeutic environments.”
The study states in its conclusion. It is one of the only studies done on this topic and it does state further research should be done.
One of the reasons for this conclusion could, in part, be due to the selection process that service dog organizations go through. They specifically choose dogs with predispositions to be friendly to strangers, be okay in social situations, and have the willingness to work. Dogs that do not meet this criterion wash out of the program. Because these types of dogs are picked, it’s easier for them to adjust to their life as a working dog.
It goes without saying that service dogs spend more time with their owners than regular pets do. While a pet dog may spend 8-10 hours during the day alone while their owner works, a service dog is with people most of the day. In addition, the training and work a service dog performs provides plenty of mental and physical stimulation. Dogs have been selectively bred to perform all kinds of tasks! So, when they lead no purpose in life other than to be loved on a few hours a day, their lives can end up being small. The trick in any program is to teach the veteran or owner that the dog’s life needs to be balanced.
If this is accomplished, service dogs are happy (if not happier) than their pet counterparts.