Service Dogs, Companions with a Purpose
People usually know that a dog in a special harness with a hand grip on it is a guide dog used to guide a blind person. The dogs are commonly referred to as Seeing Eye dogs. There are other canines that perform services for their handlers just as valuable as guiding a blind person across a busy street. These dogs wear vests, emblazoned with “Service Dog” and are usually on a regular leash, not a harness with a handle.
The handler of one of these dogs will usually have a disability that requires the dog to alert them on the condition and help bring the person out of a medical emergency, or the dog may be trained to help a disabled person do a physical task, retrieve a dropped object, open a door or bring a ringing telephone to a person who may not be able to reach the phone’s cradle and answer the phone on his own. The could also help shop for groceries. A service dog can be trained to sniff the breath of a diabetic person and alert them to a problem with either high or low blood sugar conditions before the situation gets to a critical stage resulting in a coma. Service dogs are even trained to assist veterans or active duty military personnel who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Since the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 became effective, disabled citizens have been accompanied by their service dogs in any facility, including grocery stores, theaters, restaurants, sports facilities, churches, and any other public building. This is a right guaranteed by federal law. In public buildings service dogs are subject to come into contact with people of all ages, under all conditions. The major problem the dog may face is attention from well meaning citizens.
Service dogs are highly trained. They know they are working when dressed in their vest. They go from being a pet to a worker with a purpose. When in public and a child or adult talks to them or attempts to pet them they are momentarily distracted from their mission to their handler.
Allen Connel, of Orange is the handler of TaLa, a beautiful dog of white German Shepherd and Malamute bloodlines. TaLa is trained to alert Connel when he is beginning to be affected by his medical condition, or to help him out of a situation that has occurred. “People often come around us and tell their children ‘look at the Seeing Eye dog,’” said Connel. “Can you imagine how the child feels when they have been told that and then see me shopping and placing items in my shopping cart? The public needs to be aware that there are dogs that provide many kinds of services for all kinds of disabilities, not just blindness. I appreciate that people want to admire my dog, but they need to leave TaLa alone so she can do what she is trained to do.”
Well meaning people often do things that border on rudeness or being impolite to a disabled person. There are rules of etiquette for interacting with a person with a service dog. A person should not approach the dog and talk to it or attempt to pet the dog without asking the handler if it is all right to do so. They should abide with the request of the handler. If they are with children, they should insure that the children do not act contrary to the request of the handler. A person should not ask the handler what type of disability he or she has. People often are not comfortable discussing problems with someone they do not know and have never seen before. One should never, under any circumstances, offer food to a service dog. People should also be aware that anything they do that may upset the handler could cause the dog to react. This does not mean the dog would attack, but the dog could be going into the mode of reacting to the handler’s situation and the person could mistakenly think the dog was being aggressive toward them, which would not be the case. The rule for seeing a person with a service dog should always be “respect.” The handler and the dog should always be treated with respect. They should be allowed to do whatever they are attempting to do and not be interrupted. It doesn’t matter how well meaning the person may be.
A group in Arizona called Soldier’s Best Friend (SBF), chartered in January, 2011, trains dogs to assist veterans suffering from PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Disorder. They will provide the veteran with either a service or therapeutic companion dog. SBF is dedicated to helping the pet overpopulation problem. They obtain a number of dogs from shelters like the Arizona Humane Society. All of the dogs are spayed, neutered, vaccinated, and receive all necessary preventative veterinary medicines. The dogs go through a five to seven month training program. Any member of any branch of the service from any state is eligible to receive a dog. The only cost to the veteran is providing his transportation to and from Arizona if they are coming from another state and the cost of their housing and food while they are going through training prior to receiving their dog. The dog and training are of no cost to the veteran.
The dogs are trained to help the veteran recover and adjust back into civilian life. The dogs are trained to assist with panic attacks, depression, anxiety, bad nightmares, irritability, sleep disturbance, suicidal thoughts, reclusive behavior, and several other conditions. Once the veteran receives his dog he becomes responsible for the care and treatment of the dog.
Since the domestication of dogs they have provided many services to humans. The first dogs were work animals. They then became valued companions. Now they have progressed to being highly trained companions who have helped thousands of people with many types of disabilities lead more comfortable lives. All they ask in return for their work and unconditional love is just a little love in return.