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A Service Dog For Anne

By Linda Dillon

    Our daughter, Anne, is eight years old, has severe cerebral palsy, and is the sweetest little girl you could ever meet. She uses a wheelchair, is visually impaired, is non-verbal, is fed primarily through a gastrostomy feeding tube, and requires oxygen at night.

About a year ago we read some research about how disabled children had benefited from having a relationship with a service dog, and we thought about getting a service dog for Anne. We asked Anneís neurologist about the idea and he was enthusiastic. He said four of his young special needs patients had obtained service dogs, and the difference it had made in their lives was incredible. The dogs were very well behaved, lying down quietly next to the child during the hour-long appointment, and only "visited" with him at the end when they were given permission. One child who was unsteady on her feet held the dogís harness for balance, and the dog actually used his nose to give her leg a nudge sometimes when she needed help walking.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), says that a service animal is "any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability." This can include help with mobility such as guiding a person who is visually impaired, providing stability for a person who has trouble walking, or pulling a wheelchair. A deaf person may have a service dog that is trained to alert them to the sounds around them. Service dogs can be trained to pick up dropped items, turn a light switch on and off, push a switch to operate an automatic door, pull a rope to open a door or drawer, and use a paw to close it again. They can even be trained to alert the handler to take medication, to get help when the handler has a seizure, or to protect them during a seizure. Service animals are usually dogs, but can be another kind of trained animal. Service animals may accompany a person with a disability into places where animals are not normally allowed, such as government buildings, restaurants, buses, airplanes, hotels, hospitals, taxis, grocery and department stores, theaters, health clubs, churches, zoos, etc. Business owners may ask if an animal is a trained service animal, but they cannot require special ID cards, or certification, or ask about the personís disability. The ADA defines a disability as any mental or physical problem that limits a major life activity, such as seeing, hearing, talking, walking, breathing, learning, and caring for oneís self. Some disabilities are not visible, such as a heart condition or epilepsy.

Recent research shows the amazing benefits of a relationship between a disabled child and a service dog. These dogs offer the child companionship and unconditional affection. Studies show that these dogs reduce the childís feelings of isolation, significantly increase the childís social interactions, help the child develop adaptive personality traits, enhance self-esteem, and reduce stress both emotionally and physically. We feel that these benefits are more important than whether the dog can open doors and turn on lights, etc.

One article explains that even children with autism benefit immensely from a relationship with a dog companion. The research showed that some children with autism displayed behaviors towards their pets that they rarely, if ever, were able to express towards humans. The children sought out their pets for companionship and comfort. Although they disliked being touched and hugged by humans, these children enjoyed holding and petting their dogs.

We applied for a service dog for Anne from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). We went through their application process, but we were discouraged when we found out that their waiting list is about two years long. CCI also maintains the legal ownership of the service dog even after placement with the disabled person. (If they donít like the way you are caring for the dog, they can take the dog back.) We also learned that we would have to make three trips from our home in Washington State to their Northwest Regional Center in Santa Rosa, California. The first visit is for the "in-person interview," the second visit is for an intensive two week training session with the dog, and the last trip is for the "follow-up" visit, to see how everything is going and how the handler is maintaining the dogís training. We realized that making three trips to California with our large family, and more than 2 weeks off work for my husband, would cost too much.

Feeling concern about this, as if in answer to prayer, I met a couple and their service dog in the grocery store. The service dog was assisting the wife, a lovely woman who has MS. I asked them about their dog, and told them we hoped to get one from CCI but we were discouraged about the cost, the long wait, and the fact that we would not legally own the dog. They told us that the ADA does NOT require service dogs to be "certified," which means that you CAN TRAIN YOUR OWN SERVICE DOG. They had trained their own dog themselves. But they explained that this is not a project for those who are inexperienced with dog training, and they told us about the Delta Society who could help us find a trainer if we needed one. We could enjoy bonding with a puppy, and we could be the legal owners of our dog.

We found a service dog trainer in Washington State and then took the big plunge: we bought a sweet little Golden Retriever puppy! The service dog trainer told us to take our dog to regular obedience classes first, and bring the dog to her for some specialized training lessons when she was one year old. She charges $30 an hour for these private lessons.

Our dog, Carmen, is now eight months old and is doing great with her training. She can obey all the regular dog obedience commands, and a few special ones we made up ourselves. But the most important point is the change that has come over Anne. She LOVES her dog. She is noticeably more joyful, alive and alert. She wants to know everything her dog is doing. Anne doesnít see really well, but she can hear the dog tags jingling on Carmenís collar when she is near. We help Anne to open her hand and pet Carmen. Anne is delighted when we help her throw a tennis ball and Carmen fetches it and brings it back to her. Helping Anne throw the ball, and helping her brush her dog, is now a part of Anneís physical therapy exercises. Carmen sleeps in Anneís bed until Anne falls asleep, and then we move the dog to her kennel for the night. Anne goes with us to the weekly dog training class and watches and listens to everything. At home when I say, "Letís go outside for some dog training," Anne makes her excited, happy squeal. At random times while we are practicing with the dog outside I hold a dog treat under Anneís chin and say, "Greet Anne." Carmen puts her front feet up on Anneís tray and eats the treat and gives Anneís face a little lick while she is there. Anne smiles and laughs. We practice having Carmen "heel" next to the wheelchair. I asked Anne if she wanted to take her dog to church and she got a huge grin. I got the pastorís permission to bring our "service dog in training" into the foyer area of our church. This week Carmen did a "Down-Stay" next to Anneís wheelchair for an hour in the foyer of our church, where we could hear the service through a speaker.

Anneís dog also helps her to have more social interactions with other people. We find that people of all ages notice the dog and ask us questions like, "Is this your dog?" or "May I pet your dog?" We tell them it is Anneís dog, and often then they will speak to Anne. She is pleased with all the attention and interactions.

It is recommended that service dogs wear some kind of clearly labeled vest or harness identifying it as a service dog. We have a vest for Carmen with sewn-on patches that say "Service Dog" and "Ask To Pet Me Ė Iím Friendly."

This dog-training project has been a good experience for our whole family. Our other children also enjoy helping take care of Carmen. They are learning the responsibility of feeding and exercising the dog. They enjoy watching during dog-training class, and assisting with dog-training at home.

Training your own service dog is very time intensive and it may not be for everybody. If a dog is self-trained poorly and goes in public, it will cause problems for the owners, and give other service dogs a bad reputation. Whether you choose to self-train your service dog, or get one from an organization that trains them for you, I hope that you will be inspired by the ways our service dog has enhanced Anneís life.