KINGMAN â Theyâre in supermarkets, in stores downtown, and if out and about for a few hours, thereâs a good chance youâll see a service dog on the job. But these pawed professionals werenât born that way, they went through a rigorous training process that allows them to serve the service men and women who have sacrificed so much.
Service dogs assist a wide variety of people in need of daily help, not only military personnel. Marsha Tonkinson, lead service dog trainer for the Veterans Sportsman Alliance and owner of K9 Paws Behavior Dog Training, explained why these animals are so important to veterans and also spoke to the training process.
âIt helps get them back to as normal a life as possible,â Tonkinson said.
She said veterans can sometimes be hesitant to participate in social gatherings, but having a service dog helps them to open up.
âBut you give them a dog and it gets them out talking,â she said.
There are thousands of hours, and thousands of dollars, spent on training before a veteran can get a service dog. Preparing a dog for service can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 because of the amount of training required for an animal to help their handler.
The time and money required for training depends on what the dogâs handler needs. Some dogs are tri-trained, for instance, one dog recently trained by Tonkinson, Bruno, was trained for PTSD, mobility and hearing alert. Brunoâs training cost about $60,000.
The first component to service dog training is âpuppy manners,â Tonkinson explained.
âPuppy manners is teaching them their name, how to look at you, focus, follow you around the house, bonding, basic obedience,â Tonkinson said.
Then comes the adult basics like heeling, sitting, and dealing with noise distractions. Other components include advanced off-leash training and task training. Task training focuses specifically on the needs of the handler. Tonkinson said that training can be the most challenging for dogs.
âSometimes when youâre working on tasks, the dog can get frustrated, the handler will get frustrated, so you just need to take a step back and do something completely different to give them both a mental break,â she said.
In total, service dog training can last as long as two years. Once trained, theyâre matched with veterans based on the handlerâs needs and personality. Trained dogs assist their handlers by picking up dropped items, helping to deal with anxiety, and can even use a K-9 911 phone to reach first responders should their owner need medical attention.
âSo many of these dogs have saved so many lives,â Tonkinson said.
But itâs important to note the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.
âService animals are trained to mitigate a disability that affects your daily life,â Tonkinson said. âTheyâre classified as medical equipment. Theyâre like a wheelchair, crutches, or oxygen tank. Theyâre just cute.â
Service animals have public access, meaning they can go wherever the general public is allowed with some exceptions. Emotional support dogs cannot go into restaurants or grocery stores because they are not individually trained for a disability.
Thanks to a bill signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in April, people in Arizona who try to pass their dogs off as service animals without undergoing the necessary training are subject to a $250 fine.
As cute as they may be, when encountering a service dog in public itâs important that people recognize the animal is working and is not there for public amusement.
âNo touch, no talk, just leave them alone and admire from a distance,â Tonkinson said. âBy distracting that dog, youâre putting that handlerâs life at risk.â
Veterans interested in obtaining a service dog can find more information at www.veteranssportsmanalliance.org/service-dogs/. Those wanting to make a donation or sponsor a dog can do so by following the link above.