Service dogs (a.k.a. SDs) have come so far in the past few years. Originally, dogs were used primarily as guides for the blind. Eventually they began being trained as hearing dogs. Now many people use them for mobility assistance and seizure alert as well. In recent years, people have even begun training them to assist those with psychiatric disabilities. Every SD is unique, just as every person with a disability is affected in different ways. Two people with identical symptoms may have completely different ways for their dogs to help mitigate their disability. So who are these people with a disability? How do they know they deserve a SD? And where exactly do all these dogs come from? Lot of questions, so letís start with the (relatively!) simple stuff
The law most often referred to when talking about the rules and regs governing service dogs is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. If you want to get technical, the ADA does not directly discuss SDs. Rather, assistance animals are covered in a CFR, a document interpreting the law that is issued by the Department of Justice. It says that a condition, illness, injury, etc. is disabling if it severely impairs one or more of the major life activities such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, sleeping, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, etc. Trying to decide whether or not you meet the criteria is best handled by talking to a lawyer or the Department of Justice ADA help line. These guys can give you a better idea of your status. However, a judge (yes, in court, and no, Judge Judy doesnít count!) is the only one who can really decide whether or not youíre disabled. And, with any luck (especially for those of you who, like me, have ďinvisible disabilitiesĒ), you may never have to go to court and find out. Under the recent conservative Republican administration, the ADA has been stripped of much of its power and a great majority of folks whoíve sought justice under this law have been losing their cases. A service/assistance animal is described as a dog or other animal specially trained to do work to mitigate a personís disability. This means that if you can walk perfectly fine, training your dog to retrieve things for you (a task that isnít affected by the disability) doesnít cut it.
Ok, so youíve talked to lawyers, doctors, and Indian chiefs and you all are pretty sure that youíre disabled. So how do you know if a service dog is the way to go? This is a big question and itís one that you really have to decide for yourself. A SD is truly a life partner. You spend more time with your dog than you will with any other living being. A lot of people just arenít interested or comfortable with that sort of closeness. Some people just really arenít animal lovers. There are millions of reasons a dog may not be right for you, and each will be different for that specific person. If you still think it sounds good, start looking at ways a dog can help mitigate your disability. For instance, itís easy to see how a guide dog or a hearing dog can help their person. Itís a little harder to figure out the best way for mobility and psychiatric SDs to help their handler, but later on Iíll include some websites that give suggestions. Here is where itís EXTREMELY important to talk to SD trainers, handlers, anyone with experience about what life with a SD is like. I guarantee that going into anything like this blind is a surefire way to end up incredibly stressed and frustrated. No matter how well informed you are, there are going to be surprises and itís going to be unique to each person, but it only makes sense to try to get as good an idea of what it will be like as possible. I found certain email lists and bulletin boards to be of immeasurable assistance and support. (Yes yes...Iíll post those links too!)
Now youíve decided a service dog will be a help for you. Where do you even go about starting to find one? Well, youíve basically got three choices.
Go through an organization.
Pro: No training experience required, dog comes pre-tested and trained, the program helps new handlers learn to work with their dogs.
Con: Lot of shady people and programs out there and can be hard to tell which is which, you donít have the experience of raising/working with the dog from the beginning, will need support system in place to help you learn enough training to keep the dogís abilities up, can take several years to get dog.
Raise and train a dog yourself.
Pro: Get to know your partner from day one, get to ďpersonalizeĒ the specific tasks you need, some say that there is a much closer bond with your dog, no waiting on list.
Con: Have to know or be able to learn a very very great deal about dog training, takes at least 18 months to train a dog from puppy to full-fledged service dog (longer if youíre new to all of this), incredibly difficult to find dog with the proper temperment, if dog washes out near end of training, must start over from beginning.
Find trainer or small local organization to help you choose and train a dog or puppy.
Pro: Usually much faster than going through big program, even if no training experience can work with experienced trainer to learn how to train dog properly, better chance of selecting good dog (remember, these folks have been in the business a long time and have probably forgotten more about dogs than youíll ever know!), have opportunity to bond with dog earlier, since spending more time with trainer itís generally easier for them to get to know you and understand your disability and figure out much more specific tasks to help you.
Con: Can be very very difficult to find a good trainer or organization near you (make SURE you check references and watch a few training sessions!!), may be more expensive than going through large program (which are usually financed with lots of fundraising and donations).
I was fortunate enough to find a great local trainer who helped me ďtest-driveĒ several dogs before we finally settled on Xiomar. Xio then stayed with her for about three months for some intensive obedience training before coming to stay with me. So each of these methods have good and bad points and itís just a matter of your capabilities and preference as to which is right for you.