Service Dogs

Life-Saving Independence

Our Beginnings:

Service Dogs enrich the lives of many people all over the world and showcase the full potential of the bond between dogs and humans. Here at Wind River that is an enormous part of our mission. Since 1996, we have raised and trained our Karelian Bear Dogs for Wildlife Conservation work and have helped hundreds of bears and other types of wildlife learn to coexist peacefully with their human neighbors, as well as providing education for the public on how to keep our wildlife safe and alive. Our unique Partnership Training has enabled our working dogs to perform the specific tasks that they have been trained to do with the drive and intensity we need while at the same time being public ambassadors; interacting with people from children, to the elderly, to everything in between.

When we began offering our Partnership  Training to the public, a logical avenue for us to pursue was training service dogs for those in need. Using the same methods we use to train our Karelian Bear Dogs, we train dogs for specific, tailored tasks to help people with disabilities and give them independence!

We train the following types of service dogs:

  • Medical Assistance Dogs – For some physical disabilities. We can train mobility assistance, seizure-response, and diabetic alert dog. If you have a specific need related to a physical condition that is not listed here, please do not hesitate to ask!
  • Psychiatric Assistance Dogs – This is one of the fastest-growing areas of service dog training in the world, and we are thrilled to be a part of it. Most people know the natural therapeutic effects that dogs have on their owners–it is an easy leap to know how much of a positive impact a Psychiatric Assistance dog can have on a person’s life. We offer training for: PTSD, Autism Assistance, and other psychiatric disabilities.

Wildlife Shepherding Dogs – We continue to breed, raise, and train our Karelian Bear Dogs in our mission to reduce human-wildlife conflict, as well as working with other government and private organizations to achieve the same goals. If you are interested in our wildlife work or starting a program in your area, please visit our nonprofit website at: beardogs.org OR send inquiries to: info@windriverbearinstitute.org

Our Roots: Our team of bear conflict specialists, field biologists, and specially-trained Karelian Bear Dogs perform Wildlife Shepherding and public education to save hundreds of bears and other wildlife worldwide! 

In addition to Karelian Bear Dogs, we are partnering with Glacier National Park and the National Park Service in their pilot “Bark Ranger” program. This is Gracie, Glacier’s first dog to enter the Bark Ranger program, trained using the same techniques we have used with our Bear Dogs. Gracie is responsible for public outreach and education, and herding Big Horned Sheep and Mountain Goats away from the Logan Pass Visitor Center to reduce human-wildlife conflict.

Service-Dog-In-Training ‘Jake’ and his owner Shayna working on “Leave It” with a bowl of food in Southgate Mall in Missoula. Jake and Shayna are part of our Owner Training program. 

Seizure Alert Dog Arthur is always very cautious when he knows his little girl is holding the other end of the leash. 

How Does Our Training Program Work?

We believe that obtaining a service dog should be accessible to all who need one, and have designed two different options that will fit the majority of our client’s needs. We do not have already-trained dogs available for purchase or placement.

Train Your Own Dog

We can evaluate your existing dog or puppy using our temperament assessment and, if passed, train your dog for specialized service dog work. (Note: We recommend starting dogs between 1-3 years of age. If you have a puppy, we can still evaluate and begin training, but puppies must go through additional re-assessments as they mature.)

If you have an existing dog you would like to consider for service dog work, please contact us to schedule a Training Evaluation. This will include assessment of your dog and a consultation to discuss the training format and option that will best fit your needs.

Adopt A Shelter Dog

If you do not have a dog, we can assist you in choosing a dog from a local shelter or rescue that meets the temperament requirements for service dog work.

We are different than many other service dog organizations in that the dog you choose is yours; you go through the adoption process and retain legal ownership rights to your dog. This benefits you as the owner by providing you security, and it benefits us as an organization by showing us a commitment to the dog and our training program.

We encourage clients to visit their local shelter and/or humane society, speak with shelter staff, and visit/interact with some of the dogs to get a feel for what you are looking for. We will guide you in traits to look at based on your needs, but the dog you choose should be one that stands out to you. If none of the dogs in your local shelter meet your needs, we can expand our search by utilizing online resources like montanapets.org and petfinder.com .

We have volunteers statewide that can utilize our temperament assessment, and if you find a dog you want to consider as a candidate, we will perform an assessment on that dog prior to adoption. If it passes, you may choose to adopt that dog. Candidates for our service dog program must meet the requirements of the adoption agency (exception: Landlord permission. Service dogs are exempt from pet policies for housing. It is still a good idea to notify your landlord of your intentions to acquire a service dog. If he/she has questions, please have them contact our office.)

Once we have found your service dog candidate, we ask that clients spend, if possible, a 2 week bonding period with their new dog prior to entering into any training program.

Training Format

Once a suitable candidate dog is identified, our training program can begin. We will sit down with you to discuss your specific needs, and design a program that meets those needs. We have two training options for our service dog program:

Owner Training

In this program, you train your own dog with supervision and coaching from one of our service dog trainers through regular private lessons.

Pros:

  • Your dog stays with you, in your home during the training process
  • Since you and your dog are learning together, the ability to maintain the training throughout the dog’s life is much higher than a dog that comes to you already-trained. If you ask a service dog handler, you will know that training never really stops. It’s just like any other skill — it must be practiced in order to be maintained.
  • Because you are only paying for the time during lessons, this option is less expensive than the Board & Train

Cons: 

  • This is an enormous time commitment for the owner. In order for this program to be successful, it requires daily practice and training. We recognize that not all people have the ability to make this commitment.
  • The overall training process takes longer — we usually meet for weekly lessons, and learn new skills in increments of 1 week or more at a time. For a healthy adult dog, this process could take 6 months – 1 year to complete. For puppies, it will take longer.
  • The success rate is slightly lower. Our trainers have years of experience and extensive training and education to help them while navigating a service dog program, which can help a dog be more successful than they are at home or with their owners.
Board & Train

With this option, the candidate dog comes here to our facility and is handled by one of our service dog trainers, as well as our highly-trained kennel staff and volunteers, for the duration of it’s training program.

Pros:

  • Better chance of success. Consistency is one of the most deciding factors in dog training, and here at the ranch your dog receives consistent, daily handling and training by all staff members.
  • It’s faster. A full Board & Train program with a healthy, adult dog can be as short as 3-6 months, depending upon how many tasks the dog needs to learn.
  • You don’t need to be able to train your own dog. By the time you and your dog are working together, your dog will know the ropes. We will train you at the end of the program on HOW to use your dog’s training, and provide support and troubleshooting after your dog goes home

Cons:

  • It’s more expensive. Because you are paying for housing, care, AND training, the cost for this program is much higher than owner training
  • Higher likelihood for dogs losing their training. We do our absolute best to provide owners with the skills and support they need to maintain their dog’s training by providing owner transfer lessons at the end of the program, as well as follow-up lessons after the dog goes home, but training still must be practiced in order to keep those skills.
  • Some service dog tasks, such as those that require the dog to be in-tune with changes in their handler (i.e. anxiety attacks, etc.) are more difficult to train without the handler present.

Your training evaluation will help us decide on the best program for you, or a combination of the two programs. Each service dog and handler team is unique and has unique needs and goals. Please contact us if you have more questions or want to discuss training options!

Frequently Asked Questions

What Exactly Is a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as: “Dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Read more HERE.

Montana and Federal regulations do not have set standards or certifications for service dogs, and you do not need a doctor’s note. However, a service dog MUST be able to perform tasks that mitigate the handler’s disability, and allow them to function independently where otherwise they could not.

What’s the difference between an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) and a Service Animal?

An Emotional Support Animal can be any domestic animal (dog, cat, bird, etc.) who provides comfort to a person and eases emotional distress such as anxiety. ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act and cannot be denied in no-pet housing, and are allowed to accompany their owners on commercial airlines. They do not require any specific training, but public entities (businesses) are not required to allow an ESA onto the premises, either. This means that, while an ESA can accompany you while you travel by airplane and can live with you no matter your housing situation, they do not have complete public access. A Service Animal, on the other hand, is protected under the ADA for these access rights and can accompany its handler into public businesses and areas such as stores, restaurants, etc. in order to perform its work.

If you have an ESA or are interested in acquiring one, Wind River still recommends that these animals still have a solid foundation of House & Field manners!

How Long Does It Take to Train a Service Dog?

Well, that depends on the dog, and on the specific tasks that he or she must learn. Service dogs typically don’t begin working until they are around 2 years old. A Board & Train format with a temperament-assessed shelter pet of an appropriate age is the fastest training option, where training a brand new puppy can take (as you might imagine) around 2 years. In addition to training the service dog, the owner/handler and dog must learn how to work together as Partners-in-Life!

Once we have completed your Training Evaluation we will have a better understanding of what your specific needs are and how long training might take!

How Much Does Service Dog Training Cost?

Again, that depends on how long the training takes, and what training format is best for you. We are working to make service dogs available to those who need them by reducing costs where we can, but we also recognize that service dogs are a lifelong investment for the dog and want to deliver the best results possible.

If owners are able to train their own dogs with the guidance and coaching of a trainer via private lessons, the cost could be less than $2,000. If we are training a service dog from start to finish via Board & Train, the cost could be as high as $6k-$8k. We are flexible with payment plans and are always open to avenues for financial assistance!

Is There Financial Assistance Available?

As service dogs have begun to rise in popularity, some financial assistance has become available, and Wind River Tails & Trails has sought to make what assistance there is available to our training clients. Here are a few options that might be available to you:

Wind River is an approved provider for the Montana Medicaid Waiver program, that can provide funding for a service dog for approved applicants.

http://communitymed.org/areas-of-care/rehabilitation/home-and-community-based-services

We are an approved Vendor for the State of Montana, which allows some state programs, like Vocational Rehabilitation, to help pay for Service Dog Training.

We are partnered with Adam’s Warrior Buddy, an organization that provides funding to place trained PTSD Service Dogs for veterans in need.

http://adamswarriorbuddy.com

If you are part of, or know of, another organization or program that might be interested in helping families in need cover the cost of their service dog, please get in touch!

Service Dog Information Resources

Below is a summary of some online resources that can provide more information about service dogs, service dog training, and the laws and regulations surrounding them.

Americans with Disabilities Act Service Dog Regulations

Montana Service Dog Regulations

Service Dog Central