By Margie Rucker
Reprinted from: The Canine Chronicle
Piper is my Service Dog. Piper does not look like the typical service dog. Piper's undeniable charm, stature, and jolly demeanor elicits amused skepticism and, occasionally, unkind comments. Over time I've learned that all responses are opportunities for me to provide accurate information and to advocate for the lawful and appropriate use of Service Dogs.
When communicating with a doubting public, an understanding of the legal definition of Service Dog and its application in practice (what kinds of tasks do Service Dogs perform?) is paramount. It is equally important to understand the difference between a Service Dog, and an Emotional Support Dog (ESD). Being able to discuss the minimum standards of behavior as well as owner training versus professional training are important.
Piper rarely fails to convince even the most skeptical that he is indeed a Service Dog. He wears his little service vest with pride, and takes his role seriously. He is at my side on public transportation, stays to the left rear wheel of my grocery cart, accompanies me on nail appointments and doctor/dentist appointments and trots confidently through Costco. If a store or business owner questions his role, he stands quietly by my side as I reply to the two questions they may legally ask, "Is he a service dog? and "What tasks does he perform?" Most of the time those interactions are pleasant.
The truth is I am one of many individuals who suffer from what has been called an "invisible" disability. I have mental health limitations that interfere with my ability to fully perform and participate in major life activities. All my life my dogs have helped me to overcome my depression and anxiety disorder. In recent years, I have come to understand my disability and, with the help of my doctors and therapist, have formalized the role my dog plays in my life.
The Department of Justice's Disability Rights Section document entitled ADA Requirements: Service Animals, dated July 12, 2011 states, "Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." The document provides examples of disabilities such as blindness, deafness, mobility impairments, and more invisible disabilities such as psychiatric conditions including PTSD. Service Dogs are also paired with people suffering from other invisible disabilities such as autism, diabetes and epilepsy. The document points out that, "Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support (Emotional Support Dog) do not qualify as service animals under the ADA." There are some shared rights of access for ESD dogs and their owners, however those rights are more limited . The key to the difference is a Service Dog requires specific task training that "must be directly related to the persons disability."
Choosing to use a Service Dog brings immediate visibility to invisible disabilities, particularly when choosing to use a Psychiatric Service Dog. There is still a stigma, as well as a "get hold of yourself" mentality associated with mental health issues that makes me hesitate to own my difficulties in such a public way. No one in my professional circle, or the public I dealt with daily during my career as an educator, was aware of my past hospitalizations, the fact that I was on medication or that I stayed in counseling for the majority of my career. My mental health struggles have been difficult for me to face, and own. It has taken me almost my entire adult life to accept this part of myself. My husband's loving support and respect has helped. Choosing to use a Psychiatric Service Dog, I believe, is part of that loving acceptance of myself I want to foster. Piper therefore now, upon command, performs tasks to interrupt my emotional anxiety episodes and bring me back to equilibrium. He also, among others tasks, is trained to distract me from engaging in behaviors that are unhealthy. Piper merrily performs these tasks, while at the same time inadvertently directing attention away from me to himself. I am grateful, as I much prefer to remain in his sweet shadow. As per ADA requirements, the tasks he performs are directly related to my medical condition.
Most people are surprised to learn that under federal law, an individual can task train their own dog. In fact, if the individual is capable, it can be a preferred method of obtaining a service dog. There are a multitude of organizations springing up across the country who are supplying Service Dogs, however, it behooves the individual to adopt a "buyer beware" attitude toward some of these organizations. (I will address minimum training requirements and recommended hours of training below.) Many individual trainers and organizations have earned and deserve great respect. Canine Companions for Independence, for instance, has been around for many years and deserves its fine reputation. Another organization, Can Do Canines, located in New Hope, Minnesota, has been providing Type 1 diabetics trained service dogs and even hosts training seminars for organizations that can in turn use their training methods. Nevertheless, the requests for Service Dogs far exceeds the supply. Many people, unwilling to wait for what sometimes amounts to years on waiting lists, turn to ADI accredited service animal organizations such as Top Dog, located in Arizona. Top Dog teaches disabled persons to train their own service dog. Other individuals seek out non-profit training organizations, for-profit centers, or contact local trainers. Many, if they are able, start training their dogs themselves.
My situation is not uncommon for those who choose to owner-train their own Service Dog. I had prior work experience at a dog training center. I already owned a dog who had been my pet for two years, and who was intensely focused on me (an important quality). I discussed my intentions with my physician. He agreed to support task training my dog to meet my specific medical condition. I did all the initial groundwork myself and then worked with a local trainer to fine tune the training.
Piper responded to the work with joy. He seemed thrilled to have yet another avenue for pleasing me. There were, however, challenges. Piper had grown accustomed as a pet, to interacting frequently with the public during our walks. He now had to learn to stay focused and at heel by my side. This has actually been tough on both of us as I take great joy in sharing my little buddy, particularly with children. We still frequently stop to answer questions, but now he gazes from a distance while on a sit command, no matter how tempted he is by an often adoring public. I make sure to give him lots of pats and praise for his restraint.
The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), (http://www.iaadp.org) is an outstanding resource for anyone with an interest in Service Dogs. IAADP regularly advocates for and is involved in Service Animal issues and legislation. For instance, they have long been active advocating for access for Service Dogs and their partners with U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation. IAADP not only puts out a newsletter and maintains a comprehensive website, they also make available webcast workshops, and provide peer support and advocacy information. I found their Minimum Training Standards for Public Access (available on their website) guidelines invaluable. They recommend 120 hours of schooling over a period of six months or more, 30 hours of which should be devoted to outings, as well as a set of obedience tasks similar to the AKC Good Canine Companion criteria, and of course the specific disability related tasks. Their section on Assistance Dog Tasks helped me to understand the types of tasks to help mitigate my condition that would meet the ADA's criteria.
IAADP provides free of charge a 2013 webcast entitled Assessing Dogs for a Service Dog Career. That video identifies three areas to consider when assessing a dog's suitability for service. Those important considerations are health, temperament and aptitude. Piper met the criteria in the webcast seminar.
There are important pros and cons to using a Papillon as a Service Dog. A service vest on a 6.5 pound dog can be a hard sell when facing a storekeeper who insists he's fake. A Seeing Eye dog his size would be a recipe for disaster, and he certainly could never pull someone in a wheelchair. His size, however, can also be a positive thing. He fits easily under my feet in movie theaters, goes through turnstiles with ease, and can put all four feet on one step of an escalator going up or down. (He's confused when escalators are broken. He just stands there.) Seriously though, a Papillon is perfect for people with hearing loss, diabetes, epilepsy, and for my situation. They are smart, agile, temperamentally suited for the work, and long-lived.
IAADP's recommended criteria for assessing suitability for service, plus my own experience, lead me to advocate strongly for the use of purebred dogs, large or small, obtained through reputable and responsible breeders, rather than using rescue or animal shelter dogs as service dogs. I know my opinion on this matter will rattle some cages in the dog world, but having owned several rescue dogs myself, I can attest to the fact that health histories, particularly for known inherited disorders, are extremely important when considering suitability for service. Invest your time, emotional energy, and money in a dog whose risk of inherited disorders has been monitored through careful breeding and screening. Purebred dogs offer a more predictable population to choose from for the other two important qualities necessary in a service dog, temperament and aptitude. For hundreds of years dogs have been bred for specific aptitudes and temperaments. Purebred dogs offer us a gold mine of breeds from which to select from for predictable intelligence, aptitude, and temperament. You just can't get all those known qualities in mixed breeds, or even in purebred rescues with unknown pedigrees. I am not suggesting mixed breeds and purebred rescues can't be excellent service dogs. Many are currently serving in that capacity at this very moment. I am saying health, aptitude and temperament are more predictable in responsibly bred pure breeds.
Piper is out of stock bred for soundness, intelligence, longevity of life, aptitude, temperament and type. His dam and sire are purebred Papillons. Piper was a year-and-half old when his breeder decided to place him with me. When she placed Piper with me, neither of us knew Piper would some day become a Service Dog. We have stayed in regular contact and she has been appraised (sometimes daily) on his successes and challenges. Her support has been invaluable to me. She maintains that one of Piper's strongest characteristics is an almost intuitive ability to read a person's needs and respond to them. This trait best predicted his suitability for the unexpected role he is currently filling.
Perhaps an event for which Piper is not task trained illustrates best his suitability. I suffer from frequent and vivid nightmares. Sometimes I'll go out to my living room in the middle of the night and watch the flames in my wood stove to calm down. Well one evening I dozed off in the living room, only to go straight back into a nightmarish vivid dream. This time, however, I was woken up by a warm tongue and a worried little face intent on reassuring me. He continues to practice his self taught task, staying within "tongues" reach nightly.
In the end, Piper provides the public with a positive "in person" (or rather "in dog") encounter with a Service Dog. He invites inquiry and examination in part because of his stature, charm, demeanor and undeniable good looks. I am blessed with his companionship and service.