deza: (Secret master librarians)
[personal profile] deza
I have been a service dog handler since 2008.

We aren't owners. Often it would be more accurate to say our dogs own us. We rely on our canine partners for everything from picking up dropped items to reminding us to take our meds to alerting us to dangerous situations to calling for help from outside to helping us through emergency episodes. Our dogs are furry medical equipment, constant companions and best friends.

As a handler, I am on a number of service dog boards. There are two types of "new to this" posters that make me fear for the safety of both the dog and the handler.
  • "I just got a new dog for my disabled child. I've never had a dog before. It's a year old lab mix and the people at the shelter said he was top of his obedience class. He is so smart! Where do I start?"
  • "This is my 8 week old doodle puppy Precious. I haven't been diagnosed with anything but I have [insert at least 5 trendy disorders]. I'm going to train her to be mobility support and for public blocking and turn on lights and pick up things and do the laundry and help with homework and cook dinner. She already knows sit and paw and is fully potty trained. I'm already taking her to restaurants for her public access training. Where can I get a vest that will expand in size?"
And yes, I've seen both these messages pop up today.

I know. They seem like good-hearted people who are exploring how a service dog can enrich their lives and reaching out to the community for help. They make me want to reach through the computer screen and throttle them, because it is idiots like this that give handlers a bad name and are fueling those "pets passed as service dogs" news reports.

First off, evaluators at shelters are wonderful people who are working their asses off to help dogs find good homes. They are not likely to be service dog trainers, and they probably haven't a clue as to what the needs for a service dog temperament actually are. They aren't likely to be thinking in terms of hip and elbow health, psychological stability, bonding capacity, intelligence and submissiveness and the delicate balance that must be maintained for a service dog to be working well. In service dog breeding/training programs, where the dogs are bred specifically for optimal service dog specifications, there is still a 1 in 8 chance that any single puppy just will not have the mindset to be a service dog. A service dog is not a pet, and the psychological demands placed on a service dog would reduce most pets to anxious messes. Shelter evaluators are placing pets, not service animals.

Anyone who has never had a dog before should not be attempting to train a service dog. Period, full stop. I had almost twenty years' of training and rescue experience before I attempted to train my first service dog, and I still made some pretty serious blunders. Training a dog has a learning curve to it, and training a service dog is a master class level undertaking. You can't learn everything you need to know from reading Cesar Milan (while popular, his methods are all wrong for service dog work) and watching YouTube videos.

By all means, work with the good folks at the shelter in picking out and training a perfect pet animal. Just don't expect more than a pet.

When starting with a puppy, trainers need to realize that this is a living, breathing, BABY animal. A puppy needs time to grow up and mature before it can understand the training. It's like sending your kids to school. No matter how smart your six-year-old Einstein may be, he just does not have the cognitive capacity to be studying particle physics. Brains need time to grow and to learn how to learn. Expecting a puppy to learn anything more complex than basic tasks is setting up the dog to fail. Service dogs need to be trained in a way that convinces them of their own success, because the dog's success is a life-or-death matter for the handler.

Understanding canine psychology is one of the key components in training a service dog. Dogs, by their nature, prefer to have clearly defined territories in life. They want to know where they live, who they live with and how they fit in. A service dog is expected to completely ignore that one basic need. The dog has to be willing to go to any place, no matter how smelly, noisy, dirty or dangerous it may be, and remain perfectly focused on the work it is trained to do. Think how out-of-sorts and distracted going someplace completely new and foreign is for you as a human -- and most of the time YOU know it is coming. That is every day life for a service dog; constant change and turmoil with the handler being the one fixed point in the dog's life. Small wonder so many of them have some level of separation anxiety!

I know a lot of people believe they wish they could have a service dog. The furry friend by your side at all times, the romantic ideal of being able to take your dog anywhere and no one can stop special snowflake status from getting you through. As someone who has heard "Oh you're so LUCKY" too many times, STOP THAT. Get that silly romanticized notion out of your head. The diaper bag of doggy supplies I carried for my service dog is bigger than the one I had for my two kids. Having a service dog takes work. You have to plan out where you are going to go, in what order, so you don't over-tax your dog or yourself. And that's AFTER you have a fully trained, working dog. While you're training, you have to work in extra time on ANY outing, because it will take 15-20 repetitions before a modeled behavior becomes a trained behavior. You also have to accept that dogs don't generalize training. Just because Poochie has perfect heel turn at home doesn't mean the same will hold true in PetSmart or at the bus station. Expecting anything else again sets the dog up for failure, which erodes the dog's confidence in what he has been trained to do.

And lastly, YOU CAN NOT HAVE A SERVICE DOG IF YOU ARE NOT DISABLED. Do I need to say that louder for the people in the back? Service dogs get the legal protections they have because they function as medical equipment for their handler, mitigating the handler's disability in some way. They do not go out to be cute, or to draw attention, or to protect from scary figments of the imagination. Denigrating their purpose because someone wants to feel that they are part of a protected minority with "special privileges" makes a mockery of people who are struggling to do the most basic of human life skills. I'll clue you in on a secret - most of us with service dogs would give ANYTHING to be healthy enough to not need one.

tassie on the road.jpg

This is my adorable little bit of fuzzy medical equipment. She can tell me if a seizure is coming with 20 minutes or more of preparation time. She also is trained in helping me recover from a seizure, providing Deep Pressure Therapy to prevent post-seizure anxiety attacks. Fortunately my seizures have died down and I don't need her services, so she's retired to being a pampered pet. I'm hoping to acquire a dog to train up to mobility work in the near future. I love Tassie, but she's just too small to catch me when I fall down.

LJ Idol Week 6. Heel Turn.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-21 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] adoptedwriter.livejournal.com
Adorable dog! This is great information.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 07:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you! She has saved my life more often than I can count.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-23 12:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rayaso.livejournal.com
This was great! I love the description of a service dog as "medical equipment." I find the thought of non-qualifying people wanting a service animal as some kind of life accessory to be disturbing.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 07:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you!

I had a prospective employer once ask me "well isn't there some machine that can do what your dog does?" The answer was no -- science has yet to develop a machine that could give me a reliable 20 minute notice before a seizure hits, or one that would notify my family when my blood pressure bottoms out without warning (these two things coinciding are why I coded in 2011).

But a lot of people just see the cute furry pooch and never think that there's a reason she's with me.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-23 09:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] uselesstinrelic.livejournal.com
I've read and learned a bit about service animals after I was totally confused upon seeing a "service animal" vest on a bird website. I have a cockatiel and, while I was browsing bird harnesses, saw this parrot vest and I was like... what? You can't just... buy a service animal vest and put it on an animal...? That's not how that works, right?

I have read about or known people who buy/talked about wanting to buy these vests. Some of them see their pet as an emotional support animal for very real mental health problems, although there's always that concern that a person's pet is nice and all, but support animals, like you say, are trained. An untrained pet, emotional support or not, out and about in public can be a danger to you, themselves, or others. So there's problems there for sure. But certainly I've read that there's garbage people who think if they just buy a vest then they can bring their pets with them wherever they want and nobody can say anything.

Like I say, garbage people.

There's one important thing that I took away from learning about service dogs, and something that I liked reading about here- and that's that they're working pets with important jobs. I never approach a service dog and I raise my kid that, when seeing a service animal, you don't approach it or act to engage with it like it's a pet. I hear that's a huge thing for people who have a service animal that more people need to know and respect.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 07:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
In some ways, the vests being available are wonderful. Many disabled folks can't afford the program fees for a program trained SD, which are generally around $20,000 and may or may not provide a dog trained to the standards advertised. The well-run free programs have waiting lists for placement of four years or more, and often require the handler to live in a household with no other pets or similar restrictions. So when we take on the monumental task of training a dog ourselves, knowing that good quality gear is available for price that takes fixed incomes into account is a good thing.

I always appreciate the people who respect that the dog is working. She even has a special command - "say hi" - to tell her when it's ok for her to greet other people.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-28 02:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] uselesstinrelic.livejournal.com
I really had no idea how expensive it was! I'll tell you, I'm desperate to know more about how the program with miniature horses works...

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 12:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] penpusher.livejournal.com
Thanks for clarifying a lot of elements about service dogs and distinguishing the facts about their work roles and those of a well trained pet.

Like most things that aren't frequently seen by the public, service dogs appear to be super smart pets you get to take wherever you like by casual observers, which is why they aren't understood. Which is also why your essay is so worthwhile. More people need to talk about service dogs so that people who are uninformed can have that understanding.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 07:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Oh, they are super smart, believe me! Tassie has a running list of about 30 different commands used on a regular basis. Those run the gamut from seizure alert (responding to a specific scent and notifying me of it EVERY time she smells it on my breath, without prompting) to laying quietly in my lap in a quickly-moving wheelchair to standing on her back legs and turning in a circle on demand (she used to do childrens' story times with me).

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 02:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] m-malcontent.livejournal.com
Enjoyed learning from you today.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 07:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-24 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ryl.livejournal.com
You need to go on the road delivering this speech. I work in a hotel and I see so many idiots trying to pass of their barky little yapmonster as a service dog.

Question: How does Tassie know you're about to have a seizure? I've always wondered that about those kinds of service dogs.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you. I've actually spoken about service dogs in public spaces at librarian conferences. :) It's one of my bugaboos.

Tassie is trained to recognize the scent change when the ketone levels in my system fluctuate. At the time we did the training, we weren't sure exactly what it was she was detecting! We knew before a seizure she would start smelling my breath intently and react to it with signs of separation anxiety. We then trained using captured breath on gauze swatches with a specific trained response. It took about 10 months to go from noticing that "she gets weird before this happens" to fully trained with a 20 minute warning window. At the time I was having 5+ seizures a day due to a bad medication combination.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 11:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ryl.livejournal.com
Arthur C. Clarke was right, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Our bodies are about the most advanced technology there is. Ketone levels change someone's scent and dogs can detect that! So cool!

Tassie is a very good dog.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 01:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eternal-ot.livejournal.com
This was quite informative and I never knew something like 'service dog' existed.Thanks for sharing it.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 08:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
They are much more common in some cultures than in others. In the US, we have laws protecting service dogs that are working with their handlers, ensuring they are able to work with us wherever and whenever we need them and making sure that the handlers aren't discriminated against because of our medical need. These laws generally come into play in making sure we can't be denied entrance to stores or hotels or denied housing because of our medical equipment. Canada has similar protections. In most European countries, dogs are only considered legal service dogs if they come from government approved specialized training services, and the access laws can also vary.

US law was rewritten in 2010 to specify only dogs and miniature horses could be service animals. Before that, people lived and worked with a wide range of service animals, including cats trained to respond to hypoglycemia, monkeys trained to assist paraplegics and a wide variety of creatures who provided emotional support for mental issues such as anxiety or agorophobia. Due to the recent change in US administration, there is some fear among the service dog community that the laws may be changed again, and not in the favor of accessibility.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 04:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bleodswean.livejournal.com
This is a salable piece of writing. I hope you publish. Yes and yes and yes.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-25 08:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 06:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] halfshellvenus.livejournal.com
With the amount of training that goes into service dogs (ignoring all the things dogs find fascinating or personally dangerous and focusing on their human's needs), I'm always impressed with the people who manage to train them.

How you train them to sense seizures or other conditions before they happen is a mystery to me, but so very helpful to their owners.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 10:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
The hardest part was capturing the scent cue. Since my seizures don't involve the shaking you find in grande mal seizures, my ex would put a gauze pad in my mouth when I felt one coming on (I get an aura about 30 seconds before my brain reboots). We would save that gauze pad in a ziploc baggie in the freezer and use it for training.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] my-name-is-jenn.livejournal.com
I've always been irritated with people who say things like, "Oh, I wish my little Fluffywinkums was a service dog so I could bring her to work with me. People with service dogs are so lucky!!!"

I was really sick when I was 11 and 12, to the point where they had me in a wheelchair when I left the house because I was at risk for having a heart attack if my heart got pumping much more than my resting heart beat. My doctors considered having me try to get a service dog, but I ended up having surgery that worked far better than expected and I was no longer at risk for a heart attack.

I especially like the dogs being referred to as medical equipment. Very fitting in many instances. Thank you for sharing all this information. More people need to read/hear it.

Also, your dog is adorable. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 10:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
thank you.

I am so sorry you know what it's like. I was wheelchair bound for four years and hated every second of it. Can't imagine how rough that must have been as a kid.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 03:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bewize.livejournal.com
This was a really interesting post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 10:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 06:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] n3m3sis43.livejournal.com
This was really informative, and your furry medical equipment is adorable. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-27 10:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deza.livejournal.com
Thank you!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-01-28 02:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dee-aar2.livejournal.com
Wow ... just learned so much here ... Tassie has been wonderful for you I see ... Hugs.
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