Are service dogs happy? The question is one that often occurs to well-meaning people that worry about the quality of life for working dogs. It is a fair question. Humans, after all, do not always enjoy the work they perform each day.
While some may believe that working dogs do so without any free will, this is actually not the case. A dog that does not want to be a service dog, will not be a service dog (assuming their trainer/handler has the insight to respect their dog’s choice). In fact, understanding and listening to what our dogs are showing and telling us is how we can ensure those who do make it as working dogs are happy with their job.
Service dogs spend almost every moment of their lives either in training or in service. So, does the paw they lend to their human companion make them happy? To answer the question takes some reflecting and understanding of dog psychology as well as how service dogs spend their days.
Dogs Like People
Most dogs are not loners. The animals seem to enjoy their time with humans. Most dogs follow their owners through their home, sit near them, sleep near them, and act insanely happy when their human arrives home after any time away.
Service dogs get to spend far more time with their person than a pet dog. Their work enables them to be at the side of their human most of the day. For dogs who are comfortable in public and do not get overwhelmed or stressed by the many environments their human takes them to, service work would only strengthen their human bond and connection.
Dogs Like Action
Studies have shown repeatedly that bored or lonely dogs can develop certain behavioral problems. Physical as well as mental stimulation is crucial for any dog. Boredom causes dogs to bark incessantly, chew, jump on people, and even become aggressive. Lonely or bored dogs may even develop separation anxiety where their unruly behavior can reach extreme levels and they can become a danger to themselves and others.
Service dogs stay busy, and they often have a large variety of tasks to complete. Some will listen for sounds and alert their person when they hear them. Some service dogs retrieve dropped items, de-escalate their human during a panic attack, keep their handler safe during a seizure, and stay on alert and at their human’s side whenever they go out. Participating in training is cognitively stimulating. The continuous training and work keep their intelligent minds occupied and the physical efforts help to keep them exercised properly.
Dogs Love Affection
The bond between a human and a dog can become one of the most meaningful relationships people have. The connection often becomes even stronger when the dog is a service animal because of the respect and appreciation the handler has for their best friend.
Dogs understand and appreciate affection. Dogs give happy smiles, tilt their heads, and wag their tails to draw attention and affection from humans. Their enjoyment of affection is why they cuddle and nudge their people, and why they run to them as soon as they see them come through the door.
Canines (just like people) also adore praise. Service dogs during training and during their work are often praised dozens of times a day. Furthermore, training through positive methods means the dog never gets punished. Instead, they are rewarded continuously for the wonderful job they have performed and thus learn to associate their training and work with positive outcomes. The intelligent animals understand they have done well, and their efforts are noticed and appreciated. Positive training also means that even when the dog has not achieved the desired behavior, they will not be yelled at, hurt, or shamed. They will be given more chances to achieve success and grow their bond with their handler.
At Atlas, we are firm believers in positive reinforcement and approaching training in an ethical, compassionate, and scientific matter. We strive for our dogs (and humans) to enjoy every moment of their training and work and to learn with eagerness as opposed to learning out of fear or intimidation.
Dogs Need Care
The biggest concern for many people that worry about the quality of life of service dogs is if they have healthy lives. Do service dogs live longer, live less, or show no difference in their lifespans?
On average, service dogs tend to live healthy, normal lifespans. Some may have accidents or diseases that take their lives early (like some companion dogs), and others may live much longer than expected (like some companion dogs also).
Many service dogs come from screened and reputable breeders that produce healthy pets (though shelter/rescue dogs can also make wonderful service dogs). The dogs become the lifeline for their owners, so they generally receive high-quality food, the best veterinary care, and live comfortable and protected lives.
Service dogs are never worked to death. Retirement within their loving home is the next stage for a service dog that becomes injured or ill, or for one that becomes too old to comfortably complete their work.
Service Dogs Get Breaks
It is not uncommon for service dog handlers to be asked if their service dog ever gets to be a “normal dog”. The answer to that is, of course! Even working dogs get to be off duty. They go on casual walks, get doggy play dates, go to the dog park, get toys, can be goofballs, and are allowed love and affection from other family members or friends. It is actually important for service dogs to get some down time. This allows them to recuperate from a hard day’s work, learn to socialize with other dogs and people, and get that active stimulation that all dogs need in order to be healthy and happy. Allowing a service dog to rest or have play time also increases the dog’s trust in their person, as they know that their perfectly natural canine needs are being accounted for.
Dogs Should Be Given Choice
Not every dog has the temperament and personality to become a service dog. Trainers should understand this and only complete training for the dogs that enjoy their work and can accomplish it without any risk to themselves or their owners. Some dogs might be incredibly smart and learn many obedience cues but being out in public all the time just might not be for them. It is important to respect the dog’s needs. A dog being forced into service work might indeed not enjoy it and develop fears, anxiety, or aggression.
How Atlas Ensures Their Service Dogs Are Happy
Service dogs have the respect of everyone around them and are given the best care possible to keep them secure, happy, and healthy. So yes, service dogs, when listened to, when given choice, when trained with humane and positive methods are happy.
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers.