What is a service dog?
A service dog is typically defined as a dog trained to do specific tasks in order to aid a disabled person. This may include all manner or purposes, such as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, psychiatric service dogs, etc. They are often professionally trained and certified. "While most service dogs are professionally trained, there is no certification in the USA for service dogs. This is an important distinction because often public places will ask for the certification of a service dog and use that to deny access even though the law states there is no mandatory certification," Eliana points out. A big issue that has come up recently are people passing off their pets as “service dogs” to take advantage of the system that allows them in places. This is a huge detriment for real service dog users, as businesses now assume the dogs are “fakes,” in addition to poorly trained pets being a nuisance to other shoppers/true service dogs.
According to Rover, “The most important characteristic for any service dog is that it be intelligent, trainable, and social, as service dogs are required to perform specific tasks in all different environments. Autism service dogs are not just pets; they’re working animals.
Autism service dogs start their careers like any service dog: they learn house-training and basic obedience, then move on to more complex skills like identifying obstacles, alerting to danger, and responding to specific commands. For dogs being trained to assist autistic children, it’s important that they learn to tolerate and enjoy being handled, as children will often interact with the dogs by leaning in close and tugging ears or tails.”
I was able to interview four service dog users (Jamie, Lindsay, Abbie, and Eliana) on how they came to get their dog and what tasks it can perform for them. The answers below are either a summary of what they each responded or direct quotes in order to give their personal experience a voice. :)
What attracted you to the idea of getting a service dog?
For the most part, the inciting factor for getting a service dog was anxiety, over stimulation, the need for assistance or aid in certain tasks, and the benefits of responsibility. For Jamie, it was “anxiety to the point of not being able to leave my house.” Another take on this is Eliana, who writes that “I had thought about what tasks he could perform and strongly believed those tasks would greatly mitigate my disability and make it so I could enjoy college again.” In some cases the idea of having a service dog was suggested, such as stated by Lindsay: “It was recommended to me during my first year of college.” They saw a potential tool to help fill some challenging areas of their day-to-day, and having the important trait of being a “huge dog lover,” these four, along with many others, were attracted to the idea of getting a service dog.
How much work has it been from getting the dog to now?
The consensus is that it is quite a bit of work! Even if you get a dog that was being trained via a program, there is still the added step of training the dog specifically to your personal needs and situation. Other than a program dog, there is owner training and a mix of owner-program training. Eliana did owner-training with an adult dog and describes her experience as being “incredibly challenging.” She writes that during the first week “I called my mom crying and said I didn’t think I could do it.” However, despite the initial difficulties, she continues to say “because he was able to prevent my meltdowns … and reduce my anxiety, I am able to do much more … even when I was still training him.” Lindsay “got help from trainers nearby who selected the puppy and oversaw the training process.” This meant that she had a lot of work to do at home, but it was assisted by professionals and “[River, her service dog] lived with one of his trainers for a few months towards the end of his training.” There is no “correct” way to train a service dog, just different levels of intensity, work, and involvement. However, it will always be some work, but “so worth it!” as Jamie says.
How or where do you and the dog receive the service training?
Doggie Do Good in California, Tri Canine Campus in Michigan, owner training, as well as a variety of other training programs.
Is the dog fully trained? If so, what tasks will it do for you?
One of the things I have learned from the interviews is that while a dog can be fully trained by definition or under certification, the training never really ends. Consistency is important to ensure that the dog is always keeping up with its job. I have compiled the tasks that the four dogs can do into a general list.
- Pressure therapy (laying on chest, lap, etc)
- Block (standing in front, back, or the sides of the person in order to be a physical barrier to keep spaces between other people in crowds, social settings, etc).
- Pick up dropped objects (such as a fallen phone)
- Anxiety and/or cortisol alert (being able to recognize the smell or signs of the person being overly anxious or stressed and performing an action to let the person know).
- Repetitive behavior alert (performing a specific action to let the owner know they are engaging in a repetitive behavior, such as rocking, shaking legs, excessive fidgeting, etc).
- Grounding (some sort of physical touch to bring the owner back to "earth" in cases of dissociation or anxiety).
- Find the exit / guide work
Are there activities that are harder to do or require getting used to because of the service dog?
Navigating! “Mak[ing] sure your dog isn’t in the way when in tight isles.”
Attention! Other people staring, asking questions, potentially getting frustrated because “things do take more time.”
New things! Some of the activities written about were grocery shopping, going to the zoo, or airplane trips. Activities that need some practice, getting used to, or are not typical.
Would you recommend getting one for others in a similar situation?
The overall accord was that while they all enjoy their experience and would suggest it, having a service dog is not a simple decision. It is a lot of work and a living animal that you have to take care of. Not only that, but as Eliana points out, “even in the dog-friendly and highly-educated communities I have lived in, I have still faced access issues and had to negotiate with people to let me have Max, even when I had the law on my side.” It depends on the person and the circumstance, but remains an awesome and valid option!
Eliana touches on the topic of wondering if you are “disabled enough” in order to have a service dog. I would like to share what she has said as it is more concise and impactful than I would’ve put it. “It doesn’t hinge on how disabled you appear to anyone else, what your disability is, or what you are technically capable of doing before getting the dog. I have always been ‘high functioning,’ so, even though I desperately needed Max, I was still technically capable of living without him. Basically, the benefit the dog has for you has to outweigh the drawbacks of taking a dog with you everywhere you go. And I think that is an incredibly personal decision that only the disabled individual can make.”)
What has been your favorite memory or occasion so far with the dog?
Jamie: “Graduating high school with high honors and as a member of the National Honor Society, [along with] hearing someone say ‘that dog is more spoiled than me . . . I never had a rain jacket as a kid.’”
Abbie: “All of our memories at Disneyland together! It is a place that I need a lot of assistance from him but he absolutely loves it just as much as me.”
Eliana: “Last summer when me, my mom, and my siblings all went to the mall for a day… Max was extremely helpful that day because the mall was super busy and overstimulating, so we were able to end the day with a movie in the theater (which I never would’ve been able to do had Max not been there all day). . . When we all sat down to watch the movie, Max was acting strange. He kept trying to climb onto my mom’s lap, which he had never done and still has not done to this day. Finally, after fighting him for a while, I let him climb over. Immediately after he laid down, my mom took a deep breath and I could see the relaxing effect he had on her entire nervous system. She looked at me with awe and said she finally understood how he helps me everyday.”
Lindsay: “An outing with River and Kelly, one of River’s trainers. We went to Meijer and River was fantastic. He led to an exit all the way from the back of the store and picked up all the objects dropped and was amazing! I remember feeling so excited seeing all of our work lead up to this day!”
Written by Katy Evans.
Special thanks and credit to Lindsay Arthurs and dog, River!
Shout out to Jamie and dog, Gabriel, Eliana and dog, Max, and Abbie and dog, Logan!
Resources: Rover https://rb.gy/fbn87i