Self-Trained Service Dogs
July 31, 2012, 1:17 AM
Filed under: Training | Tags: , ,

I read an article about service dogs and “impostor service dogs” the other day in a dog magazine, that really bothered me. Although I try to keep this blog upbeat and motivating, sometimes I will get on my soapbox. This is one of those times…

The article talked about people that don’t truly have a disability taking their pets into restaurants and other establishments under the pretense that they are service dogs, and how wrong this is. The premise being that only certified, professionally trained and registered dogs and handlers should be allowed to have service dogs. As I see it, and feel free to tell me if you think that I am wrong, there are a few things wrong with this line of thinking.

First and foremost, the people that are most desperately in need of a service dog, are frequently on Disability Income, and don’t have the resources, financial, emotional, or social to get a service dog in the first place. The lucky ones that do, frequently have a dog donated to them through a charity or other benefactor. Placing more roadblocks in their way is only making money for the trainers and breeders, not truly helping the disabled. There is another category of people that use or train service dogs, and I would put myself and my daughters in this box. Not long after buying my German Shepherds, I was diagnosed with a mild form of Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ostoearthritis, and had a 2 level spine fusion. Fortunately, I not only have dogs that are capable of being trained to do the work that I will need them to do, I have a breeder that said to me ” I’ll help you to train them. By the time your disease progresses to where you will need their help, all of you will be ready.” I stay very active to keep my illnesses at bay, and I don’t look sick. There are days though, where I wake up feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck, and it is all that I can do to drag myself out of bed. RA is tricky, because in the beginning, symptoms come and go. A lot of days, I even forget about it, other days I can’t get away from it. So…do I need my dogs to help me every day? No. Do I absolutely need them on some days – YES! Yet every tme that I take one of them with me, I feel like one of the people that article branded as an impostor. My disability is not so severe as to keep me from getting through life, but my dogs do make it so much easier and more comfortable. Some days, if I squat down to get something from a low shelf at a store, I can barely get back up. I’ve trained Rosie to “Brace” so that I can use my arms to push on her shoulders to get myself back up. Steps and hills are tough too, I’ve taught her to “Hold”, which means take 2 steps, wait for me, then take 2 more, etc until we are up or down. That helps me to balance, and if a knee gives out, I can steady myself on her shoulder. When I carry things for awhile, even light things, my joints gel, I feel like the Tin Man. I can’t unbend my hands or elbows, and it hurts when I finally do. Having Rosie wear a backpack that has pockets so she can carry for me removes all of that discomfort. Thank God that I am not anywhere nearly as disabled as most people who have service dogs, hopefully I never will be. Having the ADA laws set up the way that they are now gives me, and others like me, and opportunity to train our dogs for when we truly need them. Our own dogs, with whom we’ve already developed a relationship and training habits, dogs that already read our moods and body language. My dogs are both young 1 and 1 1/2, but we’ve come a long way, because I am still relatively healthy and active. Working with them helps me to stay healthy and active, it’s a self-feeding cycle. I don’t like the fact that Service Dog trainers make me feel guilty for training my own dog to help me with true physical limitations. I certainly am lucky enough to not need a Seeing Eye, or Hearing Asssistance Dog, but Rosie does assist me in many ways and makes my life easier, richer and better.

As for the lady that had her “World Class trained Border Collie” in a restaurant with her. I’m sorry, but I really don’t see the problem. Dogs like that, when seen in a public area, make the general public aware of how well-behaved and unobtrusive a dog can be. They strengthen the cause for service dogs in general. Some people say they are afraid that dogs will be smelly, loud or intrusive and ruin their dining or social experience. Honestly – I’ve run into more humans that ruin my social outings than dogs that do. 😉

Speak up about this when asked. Dogs provide so much support for all of us, physical and emotional. Don’t let a handful of outspoken people take away the piece of our lives that gives us daily comfort and joy.  Don’t let it turn into a political fight that revolves around the money that these people make. Keep the discussion focused on people with disabilities, however slight or severe they may be, and the actual, not potential behavior of their dogs.

This a picture of Rosie & Ranger in their Service Dog in Training Gear. We had spent a week at a tournament with our son. We took them with us, because a huge part of service dog training is socialization. They need to be exposed to as many different situations and people as possible so that they are confident and calm no matter where you take them. Here they are after a tough week, at the awards ceremony in an auditorium with 1000+ people all clapping and yelling. The ceremony lasted over 2 hours, and this is how they looked the entire time. They were better behaved than I was, and were less disruptive than the women standing behind me!

Don’t get me wrong though. If you can’t train your dogs yourself, or don’t have the support available to do it correctly, don’t try it. There is a very fragile space out there, and we don’t want to ruin it for those who truly depend on their dogs.



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