Monday, February 06, 2006

"What's in the Vest?"

It takes more than throwing a vest on a canine house pet to make a service dog. The responsibility that comes with bringing a service dog should never be taken that lightly. To fake a service dog just so you can take your pet Fido into public places with you is to risk perjury of law. Not to mention the impact this could have on the real service dog community is irreparable.
For an individual to qualify for a service animal, one must be disabled as law defines it... and by law, I mean ADA's definition of disabled. The disability must be recorded and a Dr. must prescribe the use of a service animal to assist you in performing tasks that will help you function better. A pamphlet by Delta Society describes it this way: "Any person who has a physical or psychological/emotional condition which substantially limits a major life activity might be a candidate for a service dog."
"Service dogs help people overcome the limitations of their disabilities and the barriers in their environment." (
The Psychiatric Service Dog Society adds this: "...Having a psychiatric illness does not necessarily mean you are disabled under the law. What matters is that the degree of the impairment is 'substantial'."
"Consequently, it is in your best interest to document your disability. Working with your doctor is a good first step." ( Though service dogs can be trained by the handler who will be using the dog, the handler must not take this responsibility lightly. This dog when taken out into the public will be representing every service dog out there. If this one dog is not trained adequately, any mistake or sign of misbehaviour that seems inappropriate to the general public will easily be generalized into meaning that "all service dogs are like this" when the truth is, they are not. As a result, only a few dogs will give every good service dog a bad name and people will make issue with it making it even harder for those individuals using the animals to get access without being harassed to death. That being said, handler- trained service dogs are not a bad thing. The handler- trained service dog can be raised by the handler building a stronger bond with the dog, giving the dog time to get to really know the person, know the scent, maybe the smell of a biochemical change in the handler right before a seizure, the rising anxiety or stress hormones that occur on days where a handler may have a panic attack... Therefore, tasks will be trained by the dog really getting to know the handler. The handler can personalize the task training to meet his or her very specific needs. Mental Illness is so varied in how it affects the individuals who live with it. Some people can still hold jobs and function at a high level, some have a difficult time even working part time and symptoms are also very different. Depending on whether the symptoms are positive or negative, what type of illness and how disabled (if disabled) the handler is, the service animal with be taught very different tasks. This is different from let's say a Seeing Eye dog whose main series of tasks will be to act as eyes for the handler to safely guide him or her around town or buildings. These dogs will have very similar training. That is why it is easy to test whether Guide dogs are properly trained in order to certify them or retire them out to be just a well trained family pet. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs have such varied tasks that there cannot be any one certification test. There are also so few training agencies that actually train psychiatric service animals. There are however many sources out there to help a handler adequately train his or her service dog. I mention a few of them throughout my blog. I also have assistance from dog trainers in the area (not a basic Petco trainer either.) I make a list of the symptoms with which I need assistance. There are lists on the internet to help a person to get an idea of some of the tasks a dog can learn to assist certain symptoms. I need to constantly keep up on laws for my own state, across the US and Canada border incase of travel, and in states near mine incase of travels stateside. For example, a service dog must know a minimum of three tasks, and though a person does not have the right to ask what your disability is, can not request proof of certification, a person may ask what tasks the dog does for you. Unfortunately, I find this questioning just as invasive as asking what my disability is. Once I describe Rowena's three tasks, they can pretty much figure out what my disability is. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen handler- trained service dogs out around my town who are not yet fit for full service dog status. These dogs are those that bark when in public, bark at me... but mostly my service dog. Even though a person may train a dog really well, well- socialized with dogs, people, public transportation, malls at Christmastime... the handler CAN NOT ever guarantee %100 obedience or perfect behavior %100 of the time, the dog must be well- trained and well- under control and this must be observable at least %99 if not more than %100 of the time. A dog is never done training for service work and a dog never stops learning. (This stands for learning bad things also... from other dogs, not just people.) This is a very high demand, but if we want to be able to train our own dogs and we want to continue to retain the right to bring our service dogs into public, we must train for and demand the very best from our dogs. Dog ownership is a big huge responsibility in its self, but service dog ownership is even bigger. Whatever I teach Rowena, whatever shots she gets, medicine she takes, whatever records I keep are even more important to the public and their safety (but always good for her too.) These things become less of an option with a service dog. I need to teach her that even when dog barks or lunges at her in a public building, she must not return the favor. These things are not things that the everyday family pet dog is going to be able to do, and should not be expected to. When I take Rowena out to a counseling agency, a grocery store, the mall... I understand that Rowena is acting as a model citizen (hopefully) and that if people find out she is handler trained, that instead of looking at some flaw in how Rosie is behaving they will be able to see her and say how awesome service dogs are, how calm and well behaved they are... how they wish their family dog acted like that too. I have worked very hard with my dog to get her to where she is today. For what I have heard ("herd") about Border Collies, Rowena is calm for her breed. Is it because I am with her 24- hours a day so she gets all the stimulation and attention she needs? Is it because she has a job to do? Is it the occasional opportunity of herding the cats out of the bedroom at bedtime? Or was I just lucky. Rowena is lucky, I know that. Sometimes she may have a hard time seeing how lucky she is, but what she doesn't know is that not all dogs get to be with their people 24 hours a day. Not all dogs get to meet all these new people everyday, go to all these new places, seeing different things, take life- long obedience classes, AND run and play... all with their beloved person. We both work hard for her to wear that vest and the work we have both put into that should not be undermined by a pet casually wearing the vest of a service dog with out the hard work of both human and animal behind it. A LOT goes into that vest. Are you and your dog ready for that?