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 offer training for the following:

  • Mobility Assist
  • Seizure Response
  • Diabetic Alert
  • Allergen Detection
  • Psychiatric Assistance (PTSD, Anxiety/Panic Disorder, etc.)
  • Autism Assistance
  • Don’t see what you’re looking for? Please ask! Each person’s needs are unique and do not always fit into a specific category or label. If the tasks a dog needs to perform are something within the scope of our abilities we are happy to assist!

*Please note: In addition to Service Dogs, we also offer training for certain other types of working dogs. Please see our general Training pages for more details or, for more information on our Wildlife Shepherding Dogs, visit our sister site at http://beardogs.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! 

We also work closely with agencies like the National Park Service, where Gracie the “Bark Ranger” holds the dual roles of wildlife shepherd for Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats in the Logan Pass Area and serving as an education ambassador for hundreds of people each visit. 

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?

Those best fit for our program are teams who are willing and able to take an active role in the training process; while you do not need to be able to train your own dog, we ask our clients to be active participants in the selection process of finding a dog, in keeping up-to-date on your dog’s training and attending owner transfer training AND follow-up training after your dog graduates a program. Even in our Board & Train program, there is a significant owner training component after your dog goes home that requires teams to practice regularly and meet with trainers on a periodic basis. Teams must be able to travel/provide their own transportation and lodging to and from training, whether the location for training be here at our ranch or in various public locations.

There are two main options for determining your service dog candidate:

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 Temperament Assessment and Training Consultation. These are conducted here at our training facility in Florence and will include: performing a temperament assessment on your candidate dog, discussing your service dog task training needs in-depth, creating a training program that meets your needs including the training format, and taking that information and writing a tailored training plan, submitted to you for approval prior to beginning any training. Cost for this is $75 and typically takes 1-2 hours.

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.

*Note – if you have a specific need, like a hypoallergenic dog, finding a suitable shelter dog candidate might not be possible. We may have to investigate other avenues, such as going through a breeder

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 (free). 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 a 2 week bonding period with their new dog prior to scheduling a follow-up consultation to finalize your training plan. This allows the dog to settle in to its new environment, and if there are any problems that arise that were not apparent in the shelter environment or in the assessment we generally see these appear early and can look at other options prior to entering into training. If all goes well during the first two weeks, we will schedule your training consultation, which will include: a follow-up assessment, discussion and formation of a detailed training program and a written training plan submitted to you for approval prior to beginning training. Cost for this consultation is $75.

Training Format

Once a suitable candidate dog is identified, our training program can begin. We offer training in two main formats, based on your specific needs — training programs can also consist of a combination of these two elements for different phases of the training 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. However, it is important to note that, while your dog will be returned to you with the skills outlined in your training plan, there is a significant owner-training component to this program after your dog goes home; there is a transition period where you and your dog will be learning to work together as a team and, especially for tasks that require a dog to be attuned to an owner’s specific routine or changes in body chemistry, a learning curve where the dog is adjusting to his/her new handler. Additionally, some tasks will require owners to provide scent samples or articles for training, such as for Diabetic Alert Dogs and other alert-type behaviors (i.e. migraines, cortisol/anxiety, etc.)

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. Please keep in mind as stated above that there is still an owner-training component at the end of this program.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Makes a Service Dog 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.

There are no registrations, certifications, or doctors’ notes that make a dog a service dog; there are only two things that do that:

  1. The owner/handler of the service dog MUST have a disability.
  2. The dog must be trained to perform a task(s) that directly relate to and mitigate the handler’s disability

Our training program is individually tailored to each dog/handler team to address the dog’s ability to behave safely and reliably in public and to perform the tasks that assist the handler. We utilize two tests to measure the proficiency of the dog’s training; the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and our own in-house Public Access Test. Passing of these tests do not make a dog a service dog, but they are prerequisites for teams to graduate from our program. Graduation from our program will come with a certificate of completion from our organization.

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

Just like above, there is one primary component that separates an ESA from a Service Animal: the training that the dog receives.

Emotional Support Animals can be any domestic animal, and a healthcare provider must write a letter recommending/prescribing the animal to ease emotional distress. These animals do not require any special training.

Emotional Support Animals are covered by the Fair Housing Act and are not subject to “no-pet” policies. They can also accompany their handlers in the cabin on commercial airlines. However, they are NOT allowed to accompany their handlers in places of public accommodation.

Wind River recommends that all dogs receive at least basic training, and that dogs that are granted an exception to pet policies should be exceptionally well behaved so as not to put an undue burden on property management companies/landlords. If you have an Emotional Support Animal, please speak with one of our trainers about our House & Field Manners program!

How Long Does It Take to Train a Service Dog?

Assistance Dogs International, an organization that seeks to promote standards of excellence in the service dog training community approximates 120 hours over 6 months. A well-trained Service Dog should be trained 1 to 2 hours per day over 6 months– in other words 180 to 360 hours.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast line. Here are some scenarios:

  • Beginning with a puppy (a dog under 1 year): Training can begin as soon as you bring a new puppy home, and puppies generally learn the behaviors you want to teach them very quickly. However, puppies do not have the mental maturity or endurance to be able to perform service dog work. A puppy should be considered “in training” until he or she is approximately 18-24 months old. This will obviously go well beyond the 6 month/120 hour recommendation.
  • A Board & Train may only take 3 months (or as much as 6 months) to teach your dog all the behaviors he or she needs. However, once your dog goes home you will need additional time to begin working together as a fully-functioning service dog team, and you are not considered “graduated” until you and your dog can pass the Canine Good Citizen Test, Wind River’s Public Access Test, and perform task work to 90% proficiency together.
  • An owner-training program via private lessons must move at the pace that the handler is able to go at. If your time to train is more limited or you are working with particularly difficult tasks, it may take longer than 6 months to master all the necessary skills.
How Much Does Service Dog Training Cost?

The cost of our training programs is unique to the individual, but these are some general guidelines:

  • For 100% Owner Training via private lessons, cost ranges from about $1,500-$2,500
  • For 100% Board & Train, cost ranges from about $6,500-$8,500

However, in addition to the training cost, you must also consider things like: pet supplies, food, toys, beds, veterinary visits, adoption fees, etc.

 

Is There Financial Assistance Available?

Sometimes. We do not currently have in-house financial assistance or scholarships available, but we work with multiple organizations that can provide assistance in certain situations. Insurance generally does not pay for service dog training, except in very specific circumstances (such as an injury/accident), but it is always worth it to ask. Some examples of other financial assistance programs we work with are:

  • Approved providers for Montana Medicaid Waiver (this is different than regular Medicaid — please speak with your case manager if you need more information)
  • We have worked with State programs like Vocational Rehabilitation
  • For Veterans, we have worked with Rocky Mountain Warrior Foundation and Adam’s Warrior Buddy
  • We participate in the Partner Program for The Gift of Sunshine (Hope Chest)
  • Josh Provides Epilepsy Foundation has provided a grant for a seizure response dog

If you are investigating an avenue for financial assistance or know of a program that provides it that you think would be a benefit to your or other clients, please let us know! We are always willing to open up additional avenues for people in need. If there is an application process or paperwork that we need to fill out, pass it along!

Do you have dogs available?

No. We do not breed or adopt dogs into our organization or have already-trained dogs available for placement. Part of our mission is to find permanent homes for dogs in need and so our clients/potential owners must find and adopt their prospect dog with our assistance and temperament screening. We do not as an organization have any legal ownership to your future service dog.

 

Why do you only work with clients within a 6-hour radius?

We are a small organization and our travel ability is limited. It is critically important to us to ensure each service dog team is successful for their entire working life, and that means that follow-up training and check-ups are vital to our definition of success. In addition to that, if you do not already have a dog we only have a limited spread of volunteers available to assess shelter dogs and we strongly recommend against adopting a dog sight-unseen.

It is our future goal to expand our program’s reach further but right now we are quite limited. Thank you for your understanding!

*Special Note – Even though there are parts of Canada that fall within our distance radius, we are not able to assist Canadian citizens with service dog training due to the current service dog regulations in your country. Thank you for your understanding!*

What Types of Dogs Make Good Service Dogs?

Any breed, size, or type of dog can be a service dog, and we do not implement any breed restrictions with our program. There may be specific tasks that require a dog to be a certain size to work or perform them safely, but primarily what our choice comes down to is temperament. The question we must ask ourselves at the end of the day is: In the event that the handler does not have control over their dog (such as in the event of a medical emergency), is this dog safe to be in public? That answer must be unequivocally YES.

When we are looking at a new prospect dog, these are the general guidelines we will send you on your search with to begin forming a list of candidates:

  • A dog that is between 1-3 years old (exceptions made on a case by case basis) with no visible health concerns or illnesses
  • A dog that has no known history of aggression towards other dogs or humans
  • A dog that “presents” well in a shelter environment — a dog should not seem overly stressed. Even though we recognize that shelters can be stressful environments and dogs may not act “normally” in that situation, a dog that is overly anxious, stressed, fearful, or shut down may also show the same response when encountering a stressful situation while working as a service dog.

We go through an in-depth temperament assessment with potential candidate dogs that looks at more specific aspects of their personalities, but this is a great starting point!

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

The Service Dog Society