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Raising a service dog: What’s it like?

Lanie Cantor of Arlington wrote this article, an updated version of her piece about raising a service dog published in the March 2016 issue of the A-Dog newsletter. 

Lanie Cantor, Paul Bayer and a dog in training (not Onyx).Lanie Cantor, Paul Bayer and a dog in training (not Onyx). I am a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions, a national, nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to people with disabilities other than blindness. These dogs go to the deaf as hearing dogs; to veterans with PTSD; to children with autism or physical limitations as skilled companions; to adults with disabilities; to courts as comfort dogs; or to rehab facilities to incentivize folks doing occupational or physical therapy.

While the cost of raising each puppy is estimated at about $50,000, Canine Companions is able to provide these dogs free of charge because of the generosity of its donors.

My husband, Paul Bayer, and I live in Arlington, and, along with Elle Sullivan, are co-raising our seventh puppy for Canine Companions. Onyx is a 7-month-old Labrador/Golden mix who arrived at eight weeks of age. As co-puppy raisers, we share responsibility for providing a safe and loving home for the first 16 to 18 months of Onyx’s life.

We take him to obedience classes, make sure he has plenty of exercise, a healthy diet, vet visits, many varied socialization opportunities and – most importantly – lots of love.  The socialization consists of exposing Onyx to a wide variety of sounds and sights, including outings to restaurants, libraries, buses and trains, medical appointments, church, outdoor events, etc., as well as exposing him to children of all ages, strangers, folks using wheelchairs and walkers, etc.  

30 basic commands

During the 16 to 18 months while Onyx is living with us and his co-raiser, we also teach him 30 basic commands, many of which will lay the groundwork for him to ultimately be able to perform high-level skills, including, but not limited to, retrieving items from the floor; turning light switches on and off; opening and closing drawers, refrigerators and doors; removing laundry from the dryer; removing socks from a person’s feet and carrying items. 

These higher-level skills are taught in “Professional Training” over six-months by highly experienced trainers at one of Canine Companions’ six regional campuses. National headquarters for Canine Companions are in Santa Rosa, Calif.; we are in the Northeast region, which has its campus on Long Island, N.Y.

After the puppies complete “Professional Training,” those that have met medical and temperamental requirements and mastered the required skill levels (about 50 percent of all puppies entering the program), will be carefully matched to their partner. Together, they will attend two weeks of “Team Training,” during which the graduate learns appropriate handling skills, and the graduate team (human and dog) become comfortable with each other. 


When that training is completed, there is a graduation ceremony, when the puppy raiser hands over the leash to the new graduate to begin their life together. At a “matriculation” part of this ceremony, puppies are turned in for their Professional Training and the puppy raisers of those dogs are recognized for their many months with their puppies. The public is always welcome at this ceremony, but bring a box of tissues – it is very moving.

As you can see, service dogs are extensively trained to a high level of skills.  They are comfortable in all situations and are relied upon by the person with whom they are carefully matched.

I am often asked what the difference is between a service dog and a therapy dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as one “that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.” A service animal is not a pet.

Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and in stressful situations, such as disaster areas.  Therapy dogs have no particular skills that are intended to physically assist a human; an even temperament is its most important characteristic. A therapy dog's primary job is to allow people, including strangers, to have physical contact with it and to enjoy that contact, either by petting or holding it. Though not always, the dog is usually owned by the handler who considers the dog to be a personal pet.

I hope this information has provided you with greater insight as to how service dogs are trained and the role of the volunteer puppy raiser. I should add that this role might differ slightly from organization to organization.


If you think you might be interested in learning more about Canine Companions, its website is I am also very happy to chat with anyone who has questions about puppy raising for Canine Companions. Reach me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 781-777-1127. New puppy raisers are always welcome, and we have a large community in greater Boston that offers classes, personal mentoring and lots of support.

Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, “How do you ever give these puppies up after 16 to 18 months?” here is what I can tell you: The dog was never “ours” to begin with. We are just a stop on his or her way to fulfilling someone else’s life. Sure, it will be a huge loss for me, my husband, and the co-raiser when we turn Onyx in, but we can feel that we enabled him to eventually bring to someone else all the companionship and unconditional love that he has given to us.

Through the puppy we raise and love, we are giving his eventual partner increased independence, self-esteem, peace of mind, love, affection and a huge part of ourselves, all in one furry package. What better gift?  

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