Improving Lives Four Legs At a Time: An overview of how service dogs keep guardians happy, healthy, and hopeful.

September 30, 2010 by Tails Magazine in October 2010 with 0 Comments

Service Dog

Boomer, our elderly Beagle-Basset mix, has always been an exceptionally gentle, patient animal when it comes to tolerating my children. But I didn’t know exactly how special he was until my son C.J. was diagnosed with autism and a seizure disorder at age two. Unfortunately, we had no inkling about the latter condition until we found him face down in his bedroom one day, stiff as a board and completely unresponsive.

Subsequent testing revealed that he suffers from seizures that can be as brief as a few seconds and as subtle as a staring spell. Upon hearing this diagnosis, I agonized over how I could have been unaware of what was happening to my son. Yet C.J.’s seizures have never involved the dramatic shaking and spasms that are commonly associated with epilepsy.

At about the same time doctors believe that he started having the seizures, Boomer began insisting on sleeping next to my son’s bed at night. He was maniacal in his efforts to get upstairs and into the kids’ room. Occasionally, we’d even spot him gently—but for no apparent reason—pawing C.J. as he slept or nudging a toy next to his pillow. (For the record, Boomer hasn’t played with toys a day in his life, so this was atypical behavior.) It wasn’t until we successfully abated the bulk of C.J.’s seizures with the third anticonvulsive medication we tried that my hound abandoned his bedside vigil and returned to sleeping downstairs five months later.

To date, this is my only real evidence that Boomer can predict the onset of epileptic activity. But I am positive he shares an incredible bond with my son—one that C.J.’s autism often precludes him from enjoying with most human beings. Further, their relationship piqued my interest about formally trained service dogs (also commonly referred to as guide, signal, and assistance dogs) and their ability to detect various medical conditions and aid the men, women, and children who are living with them.

From the Perspective Of a Grateful Guardian

Terry O’Rourke of San Francisco, CA, can attest to the benefits of working with such animals. O’Rourke suffers from type one (T1) diabetes. Like many patients who have been diagnosed with this disease, one of his biggest concerns is hypoglycemia—dangerously low blood-sugar levels that can result in fainting and, if untreated, death. O’Rourke explains that he is sometimes able to sense a drop in blood sugar, but that this is not always the case.

Living alone, he felt vulnerable and nervous until Dogs for Diabetics (D4D) provided him with a hypoglycemia alert dog named Norm last spring. D4D is based out of Concord, CA, and trains service canines to identify the scent a diabetic’s body gives off prior to a hypoglycemic episode. Animals like Norm alert their guardians by displaying various signals, including grabbing a bringsel—a fabric-coated tube about the size of a pencil that hangs from their collar. When Norm places his mouth on the bringsel, O’Rourke knows it’s time to check his blood sugar.
“I’ve been living with Norm for almost five months now,” O’Rourke says, “and the biggest benefit … is the sense that I can share a huge burden with another living, breathing being. Norm is my constant companion. … This moment-to-moment vigilance is what it takes to catch low blood sugar before it can cause a problem.”

Happily, O’Rourke and Norm are not an isolated example of the positive and frequently life-saving changes that service animals provide to people dealing with medical issues. Long gone are the days when such dogs were exclusively associated with guiding the blind. Now organizations across the country teach canines to do everything from predicting seizure activity in epileptics to improving the communication and social skills of autistic children.

Unique Strengths and Individualized Training

The types of assistance service dogs provide and the training they undergo are as varied as the people who benefit from their companionship. According to Deb Davis, national marketing manager for Paws with a Cause (PAWS), preparing animals to succeed at this type of work generally requires a considerable amount of time and effort. PAWS, which is headquartered in Wayland, MI, has been placing hearing dogs, seizure-alert dogs, and other service dogs with individuals who are disabled or dealing with serious medical conditions for 31 years.
“When our training and client services staff evaluate a dog for service work, they are looking at [his] temperament, personality, work ethic, and ability to learn,” says Davis. “We custom-match all of our assistance dog teams and, as such, we need to know the same information about the dog as we do [about] the client.” Davis further emphasizes that the animals’ unique skill sets and personality traits often make them stand out as candidates for aiding people with particular disabilities or diseases.

“The trainers evaluate each dog for … a sensitivity level,” she explains. “A seizure-response dog is selected for that program because there’s something ‘extra special’ our training staff sees in [him or her]. Perhaps [she] lingers a bit to observe a situation rather than charging ahead into the unknown. … This shows compassion and curiosity at the same time. Perhaps [he] approaches people very openly and lovingly rather than with great energy and a high level of activity. … This demonstrates consideration and sensitivity to less active clients.”

Encouraging Awareness and Empathy

While service dogs’ individual strengths and the specialized training they receive directly benefit their guardians, these factors also have a tremendous impact on society as a whole. Patty Gross, executive director of the North Star Foundation in Storrs, CT, believes that such animals prompt members of the general public to better educate themselves about frequently misunderstood medical conditions. North Star is a nonprofit group that breeds, trains, and places dogs with children who have developmental disabilities like autism.

“I fly and travel with North Star pups and dogs quite frequently,” notes Gross, “and it never fails to impress me just how open people will be when they cross our path. … They ask genuinely good and interesting questions about autism and how the North Star dogs are bred, socialized, and trained to help the children we serve. This lovely connection and tolerant attention is the ‘good stuff’ that I want to swirl around children … who must face the challenge of autism or related social/emotional difficulties.”

Speaking as the mother of a four-year-old son who faces these challenges and others, I wholeheartedly share Gross’ wish. And as a guardian who has witnessed the remarkable sensitivity, intelligence, and awareness demonstrated by an untrained family pet, I can only imagine what bond C.J. will one day share with an actual service dog. In the meantime, I am simply grateful for Boomer and the countless other companion animals who have proven that they sometimes perceive people’s physical and emotional struggles better than people themselves.

A Wide Range Of Roles and Responsibilities

What other kinds of jobs do service dogs have? In addition to aiding individuals who are living with conditions such as epilepsy, autism, and diabetes, some service animals are trained to assist people who are confined to wheelchairs or have limited hearing and/or vision. Others are skilled at working with children experiencing developmental delays related to premature birth or fetal alcohol syndrome. The list goes on and on, and the client-specific training offered by many organizations allows people with a wide range of disabilities and disorders to benefit from the talent and dedication of service dogs.

No Dogs Allowed?

Per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the “no dogs allowed” policy doesn’t generally apply to citizens who rely on service dogs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxi cabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.” For additional information, please visit ADA.gov/qasrvc.html.

For More Information:

Dogs for Diabetics (D4D)

The North Star Foundation

Paws with a Cause

Written by: Katie Marsico

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