The Incredible Nature of Service Animals

Who doesn’t love a service dog, right? I’ve always been curious as to how these guys (and gals) are trained to be such incredible creatures. They can pick things up that are the size of a dime, they can predict medical incidents (like seizures) up to 24 hours in advance, and can even answer the phone! Service dogs can be trained to be companions to people with physical or mental disabilities, the elderly, and are often used in libraries and schools to help children increase their self-confidence when it comes to reading. Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Although most service dogs you see are breeds like Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds, a few organizations are making it a point now to exclusively train Pit Bulls to battle their negative reputation (The Animal Farm Foundation’s Assistance Dog Training Program and Pits for Patriots). Some service dog training programs select rescue dogs from shelters to provide service to those who need them, and some people even choose to have their own dog trained to provide specialized service based on their needs – it’s incredible.

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photo by Molly Hayden, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Public Affairs July 03, 2008 “WAHIAWA, Hawaii – Donated and specially bred service dogs of Hawaii Fi-Do pause for a photograph during a training session. The specially trained dogs provide physical, psychological and therapeutic support for people who face the daily challenges of life with a disability other than blindness.” https://flic.kr/p/53RLwe

Okay, so let me begin by saying everyone should read this article – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/magazine/wonder-dog.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 It’s a real tear-jerker, so get a cup of tea and a box of tissues and lock yourself in the privacy of your own home. I made the mistake of reading it at work and had to hold back the tears. The article chronicles the pairing of a young boy with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder named Iyal and an unwanted Golden Retriever named Chancer. That’s all I’ll tell you. It’s a tragically heartwarming story and it’s super informative too!

There are so many great things about service dogs. Obviously they’re helping their owner become more independent, and this means that they’re doing a lot of the physical work a caregiver or family member may have had to do before. Everybody gains independence, which is priceless. Like I mentioned earlier, some service dogs are rescues. These programs are saving the lives of dogs that may have otherwise been left behind. And they’re getting these unbelievably important life-saving jobs that they should be incredibly proud of. Dogs are capable of giving insane amounts of unconditional love, and these pairings usually end in a BFF status. As the New York Times article states, “Dogs evolved over at least 15,000 years to know and like humankind as well as, or better than, we know and like ourselves”. I’m a cat-owner and cat-lover, but can see this dynamic 100% of the time in people and their dogs. And I can also see why service dogs are a more popular trend than service cats – although they do exist, my cat would have flunked out of the program during the first training sesh. Fun side-note: service miniature horses also exist, according to the ADA. Apparently, the ADA used to define service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal”, but due to people employing wild animals as service animals, they have now eliminated certain species. Here’s the link to what the ADA has to say about service animals: http://www.ada.gov/archive/NPRM2008/titleii.htm#toc_16

Training a service dog is a really expensive part of the whole service dog program. Some programs use inmates to train the dogs, which is so cool (and inexpensive). The inmates, like the dogs, now have this life-changing opportunity to make a huge difference in a stranger’s life. And the inmates, like the dogs, take these jobs seriously. One program, called Puppies Behind Bars trains prison inmates to raise dogs for war veterans and explosive detection canines for law enforcement. Here’s a great photo series on the program: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1911990_1913005,00.html

And a recent article on Puppies Behind Bars: http://news10.com/2015/02/11/special-report-inmates-train-puppies-to-help-wounded-veterans/

Another program, called 4 Paws for Ability – Missions Pawsible works within the prison system as well. 4 Paws for Ability trains dogs specifically to work with children who have disabilities. All of these programs operating within prisons select inmates who have earned a high merit within the community. Inmates say that spending time with these dogs decreases high levels of stress and anxiety, and teaches them unconditional love and acceptance, which is not something commonly found within the prison system.

[vimeo]http://www.vimeo.com/50959272[/vimeo]

Training these dogs is always specifically tailored to the person the dog will be paired with. They are taught specific skills depending on the needs of their new owner. For example, in the New York Times article (link above), Chancer was taught to anticipate and neutralize his owner’s tantrums and meltdowns. Although this is a physical demand, there is a larger emotional and psychological need that is being treated. Some dogs are trained solely to meet the physical needs of their owners, like leading the visually impaired, or opening doors or grabbing a water from the fridge.

This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive summary of all things service dog related, just a few things I found interesting on the topic. There are so many amazing stories about service dogs and their owners, all the lives that have been saved by these guys – from the physically and mentally disabled, to the dogs rescued from shelters, and the inmates who train them. The whole story, from beginning to end continues to amaze me.

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