Answering The FAQ About My Service Dog
All my life my family has had pets - cats, hermit crabs, hamsters, fish, lizards, and my personal favorite, dogs (two Golden Retrievers; they both were just amazing). I have always been a dog person. After I moved out of my parent’s house and started living on my own I was never able to own a dog because of my work schedule, so I lived vicariously through all my friends that had pups. When I was injured in 2011, I entertained thoughts of having a dog, but felt I needed to take care of myself first and foremost, and also didn't want to put extra responsibility on my caregivers.
Then came Oliver, my loyal companion and partner in crime…now that I have him, I somewhat regret not getting a dog sooner, but then I also think that if I got a dog sooner, I would not have Oliver.
In this entry I want to talk about how much my service dog, Oliver has added to my life, and I will answer the most common questions that I get from people about having a Service Dog (SD).
The process really began when I realized I was ready to take care of someone else other than myself. I say this because for me, after my spinal cord injury, my life became a constant time management of different therapies, doctors appointments, home exercise, and just getting my life back in order...and back to some normalcy. This took me a little over a year to get to that point, and even after that I still didn't feel as though I could comfortably take care of a dog.
It wasn't until 2015 that someone reintroduced the idea into my head that getting an SD might be good for me and my independence. I have a couple of friends that have SDs that I reached out to to see what it was like. I wanted to see how difficult it would be for someone with my abilities. After being reassured that it was a great idea, I started the process and it goes something like this:
First you have to choose what reputable Service Animal organization you will apply to. I chose NEADS, located in Princeton, MA. to get my service dog, because of their location and reputation. I filled out an application - NEADS has a great online application that is extremely detailed. The idea is to learn as much as they can about you; what your physical limitations are, day to day schedule, what your habits are, if you're financially sound, and what your dog could be trained to do for you.
Your application goes in for review, and if approved to go foward in the application process, they invite you to their campus in Princeton for a lengthy interview. The interview is a review of the application where they ask you some more detailed questions. Then they have you interact with pre-trained SDs to see how you interact with dogs and see how the dogs respond to you. A large part of having a Service Dog is the fact that you're a team, so you need to communicate well with each other.
If your interview goes well they tell you that they'll be in contact with you when they have a dog who has completed training and is a good match for you. This could take anywhere from a couple of months to a year. I wanted a dog so bad it was hard to wait, especially after meeting a couple of SDs and getting to interact with them. They really amazed me and I was so excited to have a life that involved a Service Dog. But I tell you it is worth the wait!
Luckily for me they contacted me a couple of months later via email with some of the cutest pictures telling me that they had a dog that had completed training that would suit my needs. He was tall enough that was able to reach his head to my lap in order to give me items he fetched, he didn't need any new or special commands in order to assist me, and he had the right personality traits that would suit my lifestyle. It was at this point that they asked me when I would like to do the training portion. They gave me some options of when the classes would be and I chose May because it's a little bit warmer, and the outdoor portions of the training would be more comfortable for me. Because of my SCI I don't do very well in the cold. Of course those three months that I had to wait to get to training and meet Oliver were so difficult, the anticipation was killing me.
The week before training I made sure to stock up my house with a dog bed, crate, food and treats, and of course a basket loaded with toys. I connected with all my SD handler friends and got their advice on everything that I should purchase, which was so helpful. Items like a travel water bowl… I would have never thought of that.
NEADS recommended that we arrive the Sunday before training began. When I got to NEADS campus we were instructed to get a key to enter the NEADS training house, a beautiful, brand-new, specially built house for trainees. The house was design to be accessible for any and all disabilities. I brought in all of my stuff into a room that had a hospital style bed, plenty of space for my wheelchair, and a room attached to mine for easy access to my caregivers. It felt like home!
The next day we were introduced to the trainers and we went over some basics… the dos-and-don'ts of being a SD handler. Myself and the three other handlers we're chomping at the bit to meet our new companions, But we had to wait until the afternoon… it felt like days! The trainers brought in all four dogs and it seemed as though the dogs knew who their handlers were, Oliver walked right over to me, like he knew me. It was breathtaking, but a little creepy at the same time. From then on it was six hours a day of learning commands, learning grooming tips, the theories behind training, going out to public places and some amazing extracurricular playtime added in.
Most NEADS dogs go through the Prison PUP training program, where five days a week inmates at various prisons around New England train service dogs as part of a volunteer program. I opted to meet the guys that trained Oliver at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord. I was nervous that day, but excited as well. After going through the security checks, they welcomed myself and one of the NEADS trainers into a communal room of sorts. We were greeted by 15 or 20 inmates and correctional officers, all of which were part of the program, but only two inmates were the primary Trainers for Oliver. I think they were as nervous as I was, you could really tell how much love they had for the program, the process, and the dogs. I could tell that it was therapeutic for them to meet the person that they trained the dog for; the dog that is now, such an important part of my life, and the fact that Oliver was going to a good home with a person that really needed him.
Because I live only an hour away from the NEADS campus, I was able to bring Oliver home the first weekend. It was a good little trial run to make sure that I was comfortable with Oliver and his commands, Having him home, and having my caregivers help me care for him. We also had our first encounter in public with a fake service dog. It was an eye-opening experience. Even though Oliver was amazing and didn't react at all to the barking and lunging “service dog” at Stop & Shop it was still really embarrassing. The rest of the time at Stop & Shop people were looking at Oliver and I as if we were the ones making all the noise. As is turned out, that weekend really allowed me to go back to NEADS that Monday for the second week with questions and any corrections that we needed to make Oliver's behavior or training.
The second week was a lot more of the same, but it was a little bit more in-depth and we also did a lot more education on the background of the dogs, K9 health, and repetition on all of the commands. Everything went really smoothly and at the end of the week we had the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) certification test, this is a series of commands that you need to do in a public place and Oliver and I need to pass flawlessly… which we did! Oliver and I were an official team!
Now the only thing left was for me to officially graduate with Oliver. NEADS holds a big graduation twice a year, which is an amazing production and i suggest you go to one or two, Not only will you get to see a bunch of awesome pups, but you'll learn a lot about NEADS and who they help. Oliver and I were lucky to be part of the 40th anniversary graduation!
After you're certified and go to graduation you have responsibilities that NEADS requires. They ask that for one year I take Oliver to the vet once a month to have him weighed and checked out. This requirement is really important for the health of your dog. NEADS wants your dog to be healthy for as many years as possible. They're to be treated as athletes. You will be asked to adhere to very strict weight limits, exercise regimens, and really stay on top of any issues that they may have. You are also responsible to have your dog recertified after 1 year and then it's every five years after that.
Debunking The Myth
One thing people ask is if Service Dogs are always on duty...technically the answer is yes, but you still need to exercise the dogs when they are “off the clock”. Just like any dog need to let off steam so exercise and playtime is extremely important, especially if they can play with another dog. Once I take Oliver's vest off for “free time” he acts just like any other dog. You should see him when he gets the “zoomies”… he goes nuts! And he cuddles and wants love just like a regular dog too. When Ollie is off the clock it's important to randomly go through commands, because he's still a service dog, and still needs to listen to me and follow commands. Even though he's playing, he still may need to stop and assist me.
What does Oliver do for me?
Well, as a quadriplegic my dexterity and hand function is lacking, so I typically drop things quite a bit. His “Fetch” command gets used a ton. I also have difficulties reaching things that are in hard-to-reach places like counter tops and tables, so his “Up” (front paws up) and “Fetch” comes in handy often. He also flicks light switches and presses handicap door buttons for me all the time with the “Nudge” or “Paws” commands depending on the situation. I have ropes tied to door handles in my apartment which he pulls on to open the door for me when I tell him to “Tug” and “Nudge” to close the door. He also can open a fridge door and grab something for me as seen here. Oliver is intuitive as well, in that he has a way of knowing if i’m sad, angry, frustrated and always cheers me up with attention and kisses, and of course his singnature “I love you” look as seen below.
It's been two years…
… and I'm so happy that I've chosen to get a service dog. He enriches my life everyday, the unconditional love, the work that he does for me, the times that I'm down he brings me up, and most of all we depend on each other. It's a partnership/friendship that is hard to find elsewhere. I encourage everyone that could benefit from having a SD to apply, but make sure you are ready because it’s a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. Though, it’s the best responsibility that I’ve ever had.