Stay with me. It’s phrase I’ve found myself saying to clients and potential clients more frequently lately. “Have you considered that perhaps a Service Dog just isn’t the right tool for you?”
Why is this so shocking? Why are we so horrified whenever it’s mentioned? There are plethoras of treatment options and medications that are simply not the right fit for an individual for a myriad of reasons. Why should this one be any different?
I recently had a client come to my office with her Service Dog. She obtained the dog from a shelter and had done most of the training herself and with the help of another trainer. The dog has basic training but is very green. The client is a young female with a very serious anxiety disorder. She presented to me seeking help because any and every time a member of the public approaches she and her dog, she (the human) begins to panic, hyperventilate, and becomes mute. She was hoping I could help teach her dog a skill to mitigate this. She was also hoping I could help her know how to “stop people from approaching me and my dog in public.” My heart broke for her. This was clearly someone who firmly met the ADA qualifications for disability. She, unfortunately, had an undereducated doctor and psychiatrist about the realities of working a dog in public. She was desperate. She was exhausted. Her dog was a sweet pet and moderately well behaved but very inexperienced. The reality was — A public access service dog was not the right tool for this individual. It likely would never be, and it certainly would not be in the near future. This individual would likely need months/years of treatment with her mental and behavioral healthcare team before a Service Dog should even be considered as a helpful tool for her.
Service Dogs bring an increase in attention and stress in public for which vast majority of newly inquiring disabled individuals are simply not at all prepared.
I am seeing a very disturbing trend on social media and in inquiries to professional colleagues for dogs that are requested for replacing major medical equipment. Service Dogs are never meant to replace a mobility aids such as a cane, walker, or wheelchair. They are never meant to replace the need for a human or motor to propel your wheelchair. They are never meant to negate the need for shower bars, bed stabilizers, or railings. Dogs, of ANY breed, size, or type, are not meant to be long-term physical mobility stabilizers. If that is what you are seeking, THIS ISN’T THE RIGHT TOOL FOR YOU. Regardless of breed, size, etc.
I believe that social media, mine included, has presented a false image of Service Dogs to the general public and to disabled individuals who are inquiring about these special animals. We, as a community, have allowed the general public to believe several major untruths:
- Many different types of dogs from many different types of situations can easily become service dogs.
While I am a huge supporter of several different types of breeds for different needs as Service Dogs, it is important to be careful with how we present that to the general public. Not all breed are equally tasked for the job. Different breeds have been bred for hundreds or thousands of years for different traits, we need to be aware of that. Additionally, genetics matter. While it’s absolutely possible to have a very behaviorally resilient dog from unknown genetics, it is just that – unknown. But alas, that’s it’s own topic for it’s own day. Here is the main point: There is NOTHING as heartbreaking to me as a disabled individual, who is deeply in need of a Service Dog, who could be incredibly helped by a Service Dog, who presents to me for an assessment with a dog who is wholly and completely unqualified due to health or temperament. Or, even worse (but equally as common), they present to me after spending thousands of dollars with another trainer only to have that dog break down behaviorally or physically. This must stop. That dog is simple not the right tool. A better suited dog may absolutely be the right tool, but not without a lot of suffering for the disabled individual on funds and mourning the change in plans for their existing dog.
2. A Service Dog can be helpful to almost any disability and always make it better, never worse
This is the greatest untruth I’m seeing lately. There are some disabilities that absolutely cannot be helped by a Service Dog.
There are MANY situations where a Service Dog either cannot help or will, in fact, exacerbate the issue, as was the case with the client mentioned earlier. Her dog was making her anxiety SO MUCH WORSE. She was frustrated and confused because she felt like she should be getting better and she just wasn’t. She was getting worse. I’m seeing this more and more because we want to believe all dogs have magical healing powers to all people. Sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they can’t.
3. There are many more good things than bad things about working a Service Dog
There are some amazing things about working a Service Dog. But there are some really, really hard things too. I’m not talking about access issues – I think the general public and perspective handlers are pretty aware of those. I’m talking about the other stuff. The stuff we don’t talk about. Like how everything takes a bajillion times longer to plan. Want to go to a concert and you scored amazing 2nd row seats? Cool! What’s the leg room look like? How loud is it? How crowded? How much beer is going to get spilled on your dog (my experience, approximately 2 cups per concert). Do you have ANY idea how bad stale beer smells on dog? You get home at midnight and now your disabled ass gets to bath a dog. Want to take a road trip with your best couple friend 2 hours up the road for a weekend? AWESOME! So, that’s four people and luggage for 4 people in a car and a big hairy dog. Every time. All the time. I could go on and on and on about things that have NOTHING to do with access rights or the public acting like idiots.
We really need to talk about these things. We really need to be honest with people about these things. Our social media needs to reflect these things. We need to show pictures of our Service Dogs squished into concert venue seats and taking up all our leg room for 3 hours. We need to show the blow-out diarrhea because he’s sick and that happens sometimes and now I have to figure out how I’m going to rearrange my day and see if I can organize some “service humans” to work for me and also what it looks like for my painful disabled self to clean up blowout diarrhea at 5am. We need to show more about the realities of Service Dog life.
We need to stop being afraid to say, “maybe this isn’t the right tool for you.” We need to stop feeling guilty about telling the truth because we love them.
Let’s talk more about this. Let’s tell people the truth. I believe deeply in the cause of Service Dogs. I’ve dedicated my whole life to training them and providing them to others. I work a dog myself and he’s changed my whole life. I love posting gorgeous pictures of him on social media and enjoying our life together. Lets just make sure we share the other stuff too. The real stuff. The uncomfortable stuff. The stuff that will help those that need to know, that maybe, this just isn’t the right tool for them.