Service Dogs: Making the Grade

The use of service animals has been growing over the last several years, but when it comes to properly qualified, ADA-sanctioned assistance dogs for people with disabilities, not all dogs make the grade.

If you notice a lot of tail wagging these days, chalk it up to canine pride as the efforts of elite pack members working in the assistance field are officially recognized from Aug. 7-13. International Assistance Dog Week is the brainchild of Marcie Davis, CEO of Davis Innovations in Santa Fe, N.M. Davis, 45, started the event to recognize and honor assistance dogs — from eye dogs to service dogs — and to raise awareness and educate the public on tasks they perform and their rights and responsibilities. In addition, the week honors the puppy raisers and trainers of assistance dogs.

To say that Davis is a passionate authority and advocate of assistance dogs is an understatement. In 2007 she wrote Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook and started Working Like Dogs (www.workinglikedogs.com), an international resource for people who own or are interested in getting an assistance dog. She and her current service dog, Whistle — a golden retriever —  also host Working Like Dogs, a weekly radio show on PetLifeRadio (www.petliferadio.com). Davis, who became a paraplegic in 1972, got her first service dog, Ramona, a lab/golden retriever mix, in 1993. As with many wheelers, her service dog changed her life in more ways than she could have imagined, and she has had one ever since.

Davis also hopes that International Assistance Dog Week will help assistance dog agencies raise funding. She estimates that costs to train each service dog — from puppyhood through graduation with their wheeling partner — exceed $50,000. A service dog organization spends 24 to 30 months of training before a dog is ready for its wheeling partner, Davis says. The first 15 months is with a puppy raiser, followed by six to nine months with a professional trainer.

Making the Grade
Many people don’t realize that not all dogs have the calm attentive temperament it takes to become a service dog. “If the dog doesn’t have the basic personality and hardwiring, it just won’t work,” says Jeanine Konopelski, director of marketing for Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif.  “To increase our success rate here at CCI we have our own breeding program of golden and Labrador retrievers.”

Even with CCI’s selective breeding and training, only about 35 to 40 percent of their dogs graduate to become full-fledged service dogs. Dogs “wash out” for a variety of reasons, including “typical dog behavior” — like being distracted by cats or birds, or whining or barking in public. “I have a dog that was released from the program even though his obedience is perfect,” Konopelski says. “He picks stuff up for me, he grabs the paper for me, but he barks out in public and that is unacceptable.”

Unlike a pet, service dogs are elite, highly trained canine specialists.  “They are an extension of their human partner, and they move as if they are part of the wheelchair. They need to be so well-behaved and calm that they almost seem invisible,” Davis says. “Service dogs must also be clean and well-groomed. The combination of grooming, perfect behavior and performing tasks for their partner makes for a positive impression and appreciation among business owners and the public.”

Unfortunately some wheelers mistakenly think the ADA gives them the right to slap a vest on their pet dog and take it into business establishments. It doesn’t. Worse yet are wheelers who know better, but pass their pet off as a service dog anyway. “When it comes to service dogs, I consider ‘pets’ a four-letter word, and it sends me over the edge,” Davis says.
“Do you have any idea of the effort, time and expense it took to train my dog, and the kind of ongoing training that continues to go into my dog? A poorly-behaved ‘pet in a vest’ unfairly creates animosity and backlash towards real service dogs.”

People passing their pets off as service dogs contributed to the recent U.S. Department of Justice ruling that tightens up requirements for assistance animals [see sidebar]. Davis feels if the trend of so many people passing their pet dogs off as service dogs continues, the next step the DOJ will have to take is a move to mandatory testing and licensing for service dogs.

Improving Your Life
Davis enjoys educating business owners about the tasks service dogs perform and the rights of their owners. She also informs business owners on when they have the right to ask somebody to remove their dog. “Whistle and I went to a restaurant a while back and the manager came up to me and said, ‘Wow, your dog is so well-behaved, it’s amazing.’ I said, ‘Of course he is, he is a service dog, I’d be in big trouble if he wasn’t,’” Davis says. “The manager said, ‘Oh no, we have another woman who comes in here and says her dog is a service dog, and it runs all over the restaurant and tries to eat other people’s food, but we know we can’t say anything.’” Davis explained to the manager that a person with a service dog is responsible for that dog’s behavior. If a dog is misbehaving in the way he described, or causing problems like barking or acting aggressively, the business owner is within his or her rights to ask the person to remove the dog.

The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners offers a clear, succinct explanation of the standards a service dog — and its partner — must adhere to in a pubic establishment [see resources].
Service dogs have improved Davis’ life on many levels. Prior to Ramona entering her life, Davis had developed chronic shoulder problems, and a syrinx (cyst) on her spinal cord caused such bad spasticity that it would throw her out of her chair.  She had quit driving and was advised to get a power chair, but she refused because she thought it was an “uncool” piece of equipment for a para.

“Like the power chair, I didn’t think I needed a service dog, but I got the dog because I thought it was cool.”  At 28, she was paired with Ramona through CCI. “I didn’t realize how limited I had become until I got her,” she says.  “With Ramona I had assistance and backup. She was a furry, four-legged adaptive helper. Ramona helped me to accept the idea that adaptive equipment made me more independent.” Davis switched to a power chair and an accessible van and started driving again. “Ramona opened up my world — when I didn’t know it had closed in.”

Shari Dehouwer, owner of Discovery Dogs, of Roseville, Calif. — an organization that helps people train their own service dogs — has been training service dogs for over 20 years, and she sees many stories similar to Davis’. “I have clients who refuse adaptive equipment because they don’t want to identify with disability, but service dogs are acceptable adaptations,” Dehower says. “Time and time again, clients have gotten a service dog and suddenly were able to accept other things, like a power chair. There is something about a dog. Sometimes the power chair is a way to get out and exercise their dog. And the dog makes life healthier because it forces people to get off the couch and exercise the dog, go out in their neighborhood, meet the neighbors and get social.”

Davis says the average service dog from an organization knows about 40 commands — closer to 70 when you add in obedience. “The main tasks for Whistle — who was trained through Paws With a Cause — are picking up things that I drop, which happens a lot,” says Davis. “He gets things out of the dryer, opens and closes doors for me and brings me the telephone. If I fall out of my chair, he will go find somebody, put his paw on them, then run back to me — back and forth until they come to me. This has saved me many times. Another big thing he does for me is pull my socks off at night. And he pulls the covers over me at bed time.”

Upholding the Standard
Paul Knott, 58, from Davis, Calif., is an information systems analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. After Knott got out of rehab in 1986, he wanted to train his 18-month-old Australian shepherd — named Bear — to become a service dog. Bear had the right temperament and Knott had already trained him for perfect obedience. To bring Bear up to service dog level, Knott joined a local dog-training club, where he met a trainer who knew the tasks required for a dog to pass the service dog public access test and earn a vest (needed before passage of the ADA). With guidance from his trainer, Knott was able to train Bear for the public access test, administered by CCI in Santa Rosa, Calif., in four months.

Knott also trained his second service dog, Ed — another Australian shepherd. “I’ve had a service dog most of my 26 years using a wheelchair,” he says. “In addition to picking up stuff to help my quad hands, they also tow me. Perhaps because of this, I’m still able to use a manual chair, and my shoulders are in great shape. Having a service dog also keeps me healthy and active. We don’t have a fence around our yard, so whether I like it or not, I have to get out each day to let my dog use the bathroom and give it exercise.”

Knott shares Davis’s enthusiasm for educating the public about service dogs — and isn’t shy when it comes to speaking out when he sees an unruly one. “If people abuse the service rule, there is bound to be some serious blow-back,” he says. “When I see a ‘service dog’ that is acting unruly in a public establishment, I will talk to the person about it. Usually I hear, ‘It’s my service dog.’ And I say, ‘OK, but you are responsible for that dog’s behavior, and it is behaving in an unacceptable manner. You need to take responsibility for its condition and do whatever you need to do to bring its behavior up to an acceptable level.’”

As amazing as they are, service dogs are not for everybody. “Service dogs are not robots,” Davis says. “They are more like top athletes and require a daily commitment to make sure they are well-groomed, require the best food, proper vet care, daily exercise and ongoing training reinforcement. You have to learn how to communicate with them, motivate them and work with them. It takes time and effort.” Top training organizations, including Paws With a Cause and CCI, provide ongoing training support and yearly retesting to make sure their dogs remain up to their high standards.

When it comes to deciding whether a service dog is right for you, Dehouwer agrees with Davis: “An assistance dog is a living being that needs attention, love, care and support, it’s not just a tool to help mitigate your disability.” Dehouwer’s website offers an excellent guideline to help decide if a service dog is right for you [see resources].

If you decide a service dog is right for you, some major organizations — including CCI and Paws With a Cause — waive the fee. Qualified applicants get a dog with upwards of $50,000 of training at no cost. For help and finding a training organization, Workinglikedogs.com is a great place to start. Davis also recommends checking out IAADP and Assistance Dogs International to link you to the best organizations. When it comes to finding a personal trainer or somebody to help you train your own service dog, Davis still recommends contacting the major training agencies and asking if they can refer you to a trainer in your area.

Often a service dog’s abilities will touch lives in unanticipated ways. Knott’s dog, Bear, lived to be 14. As Bear was getting to retirement age, Knott’s mom was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Knott transitioned Bear’s job from a physical one to being a companion animal for his mom. “I would drop Bear off at her house on the way to work and pick him up on the way home every evening,” Knott says. “With his temperament and attentiveness, he was able to help my mom feel safe. He would follow her around during the day and give her a nice friendly nose when she needed it. He gave her enough security that she could walk around the block with him.

“And it gave me reason to see Mom every day,” says Knott. We did that for about two years. For that I will be forever grateful.”

Resources
• Canine Companions for Independence: www.cci.org
• Discovery Dogs: www.discoverydogs.org
• Explanation of new DOJ rules on Assistance Animals: www.tinyurl.com/DOJdogs
• International Assistance Dog Week: www.assistancedogweek.org
• International Association of Assistance Dog Partners: www.iaadp.org
• IAAPD Standards for Service Dogs Public Access: www.iaadp.org/iaadp-minimum-training-standards-for-public-access.html
• Pet Life Radio: www.petliferadio.com
• Working Like Dogs: www.workinglikedogs.com
• Paws With A Cause: www.pawswithacause.org

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DOJ Rules on Service Dogs
On March 15, 2011, the new Department of Justice regulations on types of animals and their requirements to qualify as service animals under the ADA took effect.

With assistance from James J. McDonald Jr., managing partner of the Irvine, Calif., office of the national labor and employment law firm, Fisher & Phillips, here is a brief summary of the changes:

• Only dogs (and miniature horses in some cases) qualify as service animals.

• The dog must be specifically trained to do work or tasks that benefit a person with a disability, such as retrieving items or pulling a wheelchair.

• Dogs that provide only emotional support or comfort for their owners will no longer qualify as service animals.

• To qualify as a psychiatric service dog, the animal must be trained to perform specific tasks to help the handler, such as PTSD service dogs trained to do safety checks for anything that would alarm their handler, find the nearest exit to leave a high-stress situation, or remove a person by nudging to a safe place in the case of an episode like a panic attack.
• “Attack dogs” trained to provide aggressive protection of their owners will not qualify as service animals.

• A public accommodation may ask an individual with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises if the animal is not housebroken, or if the animal is out of control and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it.

The new DOJ regulations do not apply to landlords (the Fair Housing Act governs service animals in these situations).

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Snakes on a Plane
It wasn’t that many years ago that the Air Carriers Access Act allowed different kinds of service animals on airline flights, including — believe it or not — snakes and rats. Here is a look at some of the more unusual service animal stories that have been in the press fairly recently and may have contributed to the DOJ updating the service animal law.

• A 56-year old woman in Hesperia, Calif., keeps a service rat named Hiyo Silver perched on her shoulder wherever she goes. The rat licks her face when she is about to have a muscle spasm so she knows it’s time to take the medicine for spasms. (I want to know which medicine works quickly enough to stop a pending spasm!)

• A New York Times article describes a muscular, tattooed man with several knocked-out teeth and facial scars who keeps an assistance parrot in a birdcage backpack. The man says the bird helps calm his bipolar disorder, psychotic tendencies and homicidal feelings by repeating “It’s OK! You’re all right! Calm down!” — one of the few things that keeps him from snapping.

• In Ocean Park, Md., a 4-foot-long service iguana named Hillary goes everywhere with her owner — he claims the iguana keeps him calm. He even paid $64 to a private Internet-based company that sells “service-animal credentials” — credentials that are as useful and valid as a three-dollar bill.

• My favorite is a 46-year-old Seattle man who keeps Redrock, a 5-foot boa constrictor, coiled around his neck everywhere he goes. He says the snake alerts him to a pending seizure by giving his neck a hug so he can sit down. This brings up a few questions. How much of a boa constrictor hug around the neck is too much? How does the snake know when to stop hugging? And finally, if I had been on a transcontinental flight when snakes were allowed and Redrock and his owner sat down next to me, would I have been entitled to ask for a different seat? With my luck, the in-flight movie would have been Snakes on a Plane.

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The Testing of “Bear”
Paul Knott’s description of his service dog’s public access test provides a good example of the level of training and attentiveness that a dog must achieve to be considered a service dog.

The CCI tester had Knott run Bear through basic obedience commands, then sent them down the street to a market, watching to make sure Bear walked calmly next to Knott’s chair — not pulling or tugging on the leash. CCI had pre-arranged for a teenager to run up to, startle the dog and give him a hug — to make sure Bear showed no signs of aggression. “Bear just looked at me as if to say, what should I do?” says Knott — a perfect response.

The teenager shook Bear’s paw and started squeezing it — again testing for signs of aggression or nipping (the dog is supposed to gently pull its paw away). “Bear just looked at me, then gently gave the teenager a sweet little doggie kiss,” says Knott. The test route proceeded into a market and up and down the aisles to make sure Bear paid attention to Knott and didn’t sniff shelves or people.

Then they went to the butcher counter. The tester bought a slice of roast beef and tried to feed it to Bear — service dogs are not allowed to eat food off the floor or take it from strangers while on duty. “I was allowed to tell Bear, ‘Leave it,’ but he wasn’t allowed to eat it, even with the meat pressed up against his mouth. He didn’t.”

Bear also demonstrated towing Knott back up the street and demonstrated picking up a few items for him. They passed with flying colors.

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