A Wheeler’s Best Friend

Owning a trained service dog pays off--in more ways than one.

Owning a trained service dog pays off–in more ways than one.

Service dogs enhance the lives of their handlers–owners–on many levels. They can tow your chair, pick up objects, bring the phone when it rings, even help you dress and undress. They can redirect comments like, “What happened to you?” to “Wow, cool dog!” They are great conversation starters and even help with making acquaintances. Having a bad day, bad spasms, bowel or bladder problems? A dog’s unconditional love puts everything into perspective: “What’s the big deal?” they seem to say. “How about a hug and a walk?”

“Having Kasten has turned my disability into an asset,” says Ruthie Rudek, 22, of Palo Alto, Calif., who was diagnosed with MS at 16. Kasten is the female golden retriever service dog she has had for the past two years. “The treatments for MS suck–they’re painful, miserable, and it’s very frustrating. Kasten has helped me more than any drug or doctor. When I ask for help, she helps, no questions asked, and she makes me happy.”

Nancy Sawhney, 55, from Sacramento, Calif., has had a motor-neuron disease since age 30. Sawhney’s service dog, Union, is a golden retriever/lab mix. “Union picks things up for me, anything from a can of soda to an onion to a dime, and brings me the telephone when it rings. And she pulls my wheelchair. When I’m with her I don’t get any of those condescending ‘God bless people like you’ pats on the head, which is a great relief.”

Rules of the Game
No “official” certification is required for a disabled handler/service dog team to enjoy public access rights. What is required is that the handler be considered disabled under ADA guidelines. Also, the dog must be trained to perform a task or tasks that help mitigate the disability and must be well-behaved and under control at all times. It’s helpful if the dog wears an identifying harness or backpack.

If a service dog does any damage in a public establishment, the owner of the dog is liable. “A dog’s work ethic and training have to be developed to an incredible level. It should not have to be ‘managed’ in public,” says Shari Dehouwer, dog trainer and founder of Discovery Dogs. Dehouwer has strong feelings about authentic service dogs. “When I see how hard a person works to train a dog, and then I see somebody trying to pass their pet dog off as a service dog when the dog is yapping and barking and doesn’t even know how to heel, that’s just plain scary. It’s worse than nondisabled people using bogus parking placards.”

It isn’t easy to train a service dog. Pete Rapalus, public relations coordinator for Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif., says, “Our rate of success from birth to graduation with a handler is about 35 to 40 percent. Not all dogs make it for the same reason not all people make into the Olympics. It takes a very talented dog. It costs about $15,000 to $25,000 to feed and train a finished dog that graduates. So every time there’s a half-assed ‘service dog’ out there … it makes it tougher for everybody who has a well-behaved service dog.”

Unfortunately, not everyone plays by the rules. There are stories of people who mysteriously develop “bad backs” because there’s a “no dog” policy where they rent and they want to keep their pet dog. But the rules are clear: If you are not disabled, or if your dog hasn’t been trained as a service dog and doesn’t behave the way a service dog should, it isn’t a service dog.

Worth the Wait
Most people receive fully trained service dogs from one of the many nonprofit organizations such as CCI. Cost to the person receiving the dog is at most a nominal application fee; quite often there is no cost at all. According to Rapalus, CCI dogs (golden and Labrador retrievers or a cross of both) are between two and two-and-a-half years old when placed and have learned a list of 40 basic commands. To get on the recipient list a person must have been disabled for at least one year and have a stabilized disability. An application form must specify what task or tasks a dog will be asked to do to improve independence.

Waiting time can be a hang-up. Rudek was on a waiting list for two years before she got Kasten from CCI. “But it was well worth it. I can ambulate but have trouble with my balance,” says Rudek. “Kasten has a special harness that helps me balance. She also helps me get up if I fall, and if I can’t get up she runs and barks for help, just like in the Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin movies.”

A service dog can even lessen embarrassment. “Once, in a really expensive French restaurant,” says Rudek, “I fell and took a table cloth and the contents of the entire table down with me. I was mortified and everybody around me was freaked out. Kasten just looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing on the floor? Get up, we have places to go.’”

Old Dogs, New Tricks
An alternative to being on a long waiting list is working with a program that will either train and place a dog with you for a fee or support you in training your own dog. Discovery Dogs charges a fee to cover portions of training costs. Many of their clients find creative ways to fund their training costs, including writing Social Security PASS (Plan for Achieving Self-Support) plans, getting vocational rehab funding and soliciting donations from local service organizations.

Some people don’t want a fully-trained dog because they already have a dog they love. Paul Knott, 47, from Davis, Calif., became a C6-7 quad 16 years ago. Before his accident he owned a 18-month-old Australian shepherd named Bear. Knott had never trained dogs, but he hooked up with a trainer that specialized in search and rescue dogs. Knott worked with Bear and the trainer every day for four months, then asked CCI if they would test Bear. They skeptically agreed, and Bear passed the test on his first try.

Knott credits Bear’s pulling ability for enabling him to stay in a manual chair on the University of California campus in Davis. “Plus, Bear was a great way to meet cute girls. He helped me feel more comfortable with my injury.”

Candace Cable relaxes on the ski slopes with her dog, Homey, which she trained herself.

Candace Cable relaxes on the ski slopes with her dog, Homey, which she trained herself.

Although rare, run-ins with people who don’t understand the rights of service dogs do happen. “We went to rent an apartment,” says Knott, “and the manager looked at Bear and said, ‘No pets.’ I said, ‘This isn’t a pet, he’s a service dog,’ and showed her a copy of the legislation. She said, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have a choice, do I?’ A week later I was outside brushing Bear and some kids asked if they could play with him and I said OK. Later there was a knock at the door and it was the manager. I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ It turns out the kids were her grandkids and they had told her what a great time they had playing with the dog. She was bringing a bag of dog treats as a thank you.”

Although difficult, it is possible to train your own service dog. Candace Cable, 47, from Truckee, Calif., is a Paralympic athlete and corporate spokesperson. When she and her boyfriend, Michael Byxbe, were put on a five year waiting list, they decided to get a dog and train it themselves. They chose a yellow lab they named Homey, read up on how to train dogs and went to work.

“Working together as a team, being committed to the training, and being consistent is what made this work,” says Cable. Homey is now 5 years old, fully trained in voice and hand signals. He can take the garbage bag out, put it in the trash can, retrieve Cable’s chair if it rolls away, pick things up, pull on command and close the door after he enters the house.

He also makes it easier for Cable to feel secure. “One day after I’d had Homey about a year,” she says, “I was at an ATM and realized that for a long time I’d had this sense of vulnerability, but with him at my side I felt safe. I also noticed that when panhandlers see him, they back off.”

The right to own a service dog is one of the benefits of having a disability. They can do a lot to mitigate a disability and enhance your life. The public is becoming more aware of service dogs and rights, but just like any other ADA right, owning a service dog comes with responsibility. Well-trained service dogs help their handlers, help educate the public and advance the power of the ADA.

And they make cool companions.

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