Service Dog

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I got my first service dog the summer before starting college. I didn’t want to be on a big college campus alone. My thought at the time was, “I’ll get a guide dog. That way, even if I get lost, at least I won’t be lost alone.”

Believe me, at the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I did not know that people could be so rude or uneducated about service dogs or that the dog would attract so much attention (either good or bad).

I have been denied access to public places, had my dog barked at by humans and had my dog distracted while working. I have had my dog attacked by “friendly” dogs, and I have been yelled at because my dog sheds. By the way, even though I am blind, I am very aware that my dog sheds. She is a Labrador after all.

By now you are probably wondering why I am on my fifth dog and haven’t given up on having a shedding machine by my side almost 24/7.

For me, the answer is easy. The benefits I get from having my service dog outweigh the problems that I have had.

First of all, my dog is far cuter than my white cane and provides a lot more companionship. Besides that, my dog allows me to navigate safely in an environment that I can’t see.

Needless to say, since I have a service dog, I must be an expert (in theory, anyway). I often get questions about service dogs so I thought I would try to answer some of the most common questions I get other than the questions about my dog’s age, gender and breed.

How long does it take to train a service dog?

Typically a puppy is raised from eight weeks to 12 months by a family who housebreaks the puppy, trains the puppy to understand basic obedience commands, socializes the puppy and teaches the puppy good manners. Then the puppy goes back to the training center for formal training (trained to perform specific service dog tasks) for another nine months. Finally, the dog is matched with a human for 2-4 weeks depending on the task being performed.

Where do you get your dog?

I get my dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind based in San Raphael, Calif. However, there are many organizations around the United States that train service dogs for all disabilities. Two programs in St. Louis are St. Louis Support Dogs and CHAMP Assistance Dogs.

How long does a service dog work?

A service dog typically works for eight to 10 years, but can vary depending on the dog and the tasks being performed. Other factors also play a role in a dog’s retirement such as age, health and the dog’s desire to continue working. One of my dogs worked until she was 10-1/2 years old while another only worked three months.

What happens to a retired service dog?

People are horrified when I tell them about my dog retiring. They automatically think the worst. However, the dog can be placed by the handler, placed by the training organization or the handler can choose to keep the dog as a pet. I have done all three at different times.

When I retired my first dog, I was still in college living in a dorm, so I was unable to keep her as a pet. I found a family to take her on my own. I decided to keep my second dog because I had the space and resources to do so. The training organization placed my third dog because she was ill, and I wanted to make sure she was medically taken care of. She was placed with a veterinarian so that worked for her benefit.

How does the dog know where you want to go?

In short, my dog’s job is to keep me from tripping over things, running into things (either stationary or moving) or falling down steps. It is my job to know where I need to go and how to get there. She has also been trained in “intelligent disobedience.” That means she will disobey my commands if it is not safe to follow through with them. The best example I have of this is if I ask the dog to move forward at a street crossing. If it isn’t safe to do so, she will not take me into traffic. I like to say she is my safety net.

Can your dog sit in the cabin of an airplane with you or does she have to go into the cargo area?

I have flown with all my dogs a number of times. As a service dog, she is allowed anywhere I am allowed. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, I cannot be charged extra for any type of transportation or housing. It is important to remember though that if a dog is not clean and well-behaved, an establishment does not have to accept the dog. The handler is also responsible for any damage caused by the dog. The dog only has access because it is with a person who has a disability.

Can I pet your dog?

This is probably the question I get most often. The answer is, “I prefer not.” If the dog gets distracted, it is dangerous for both of us. I need her focus to be on me while she is working. However, that doesn’t mean I never let anyone pet her. If she is being calm and we are not moving, I will sometimes say yes. This differs between each dog and handler. Some dogs can handle the attention; others not so much. Other times, the dog and handler are in a hurry to get somewhere and don’t have time to stop. Just remember to ask, and don’t be offended if the handler says no.

Of course, when she is not working, she is a silly pup and loves playing and doing all the typical doggie things. I do not make her wear her harness at home. Besides, how would you like to be working 24/7? Not a happy thought.

Stephanie McDowell is the Youth and Family Education Specialist at Paraquad. She can be reached at smcdowell@paraquad.org.

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