Service Animals — Barking up the Right Tree

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Service Animals — Barking up the Right Tree

My service dog’s liquid eyes say it all: I’m here. I love you. What can I do to help? Top that off with some serious entertainment value, and how much more could I ask of a friend?

Mesa is two parts dignity, one part goof. She prances in step as she heels, drops money into the hands of astonished cashiers and lands like a powder puff at my feet whenever she thinks I’ve stopped moving long enough to justify her getting up again. But she also gulps grasshoppers and suffers from an intractable kissing compulsion. Children are her favorite flavor, and her tail waves longingly whenever one strays within licking distance.

This dog who loves too much has caused quite a stir locally. Each time Mesa scoops up my fumbled shopping list or emerges from beneath a restaurant table after a meal, someone gasps, comments or asks questions. “Oh, look!” I hear often. “It’s that golden retriever who pays!” Her mere presence is worthy of note—even when she sleeps right through the action. “Eighty-eight plus one dog” was the official attendance count at church last Sunday.

Uncannily, Mesa matches her pace to my maddening cycle of flare-ups and quiescence. When my autoimmune symptoms are in full swing, she snoozes next to our therapy pool while I soothe my swollen joints in the warm water. When the inflammation inexplicably settles and I feel almost normal again, she scampers along on hikes and dances her way through family water-balloon fights. And she smiles. Widely. A big, toothy grin of undeniable delight that makes her look for all the world like she’s happy to see me up and around again.

Now that I’m enjoying the benefits of my partnership with Little Mesa Annie, I wish I’d known years ago that I qualified for a service dog. Even during flares of bilateral hip-joint effusions—when I was barely ambulatory on the crutches I used sparingly to preserve my better hip—I still assumed such dogs were reserved for people who used wheelchairs. That’s why I originally set out to find a rare released dog—one who falls short of assistance-dog standards and is not re-trained for another job like bomb detection and is not adopted by the puppy-raisers who earned first dibs by voluntarily providing its early care and socialization. I was hoping for a calm pet marred for service duty by, say, an unrepentant proclivity toward chasing squirrels. But when I called Jana Edmondson, executive director of not-for-profit Canine Co-Pilots in Flagstaff, Arizona, I discovered that full-fledged service dogs can help those of us with invisible or less obvious disabilities—such as my particular form of autoimmune arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis.

Edmondson told me that the sight of a service dog in public tends to part crowds, thereby reducing the handler’s risk of being jostled or knocked off balance. When dogs retrieve or carry items, their human counterparts’ energy is preserved. Larger dogs can offer supportive bracing to help their partners stand up, and counterbalance to steady them while walking. Canine companionship, getting out more often and the inevitable conversations resulting from having a working dog in public, combat loneliness, explained Edmondson, who has placed 10 service dogs since starting Canine Co-Pilots in 2004.

I was convinced, but still hesitant to apply, for fear I would prevent someone with less independence from receiving a dog he or she desperately needed.

That’s a common myth among paraplegics, amputees and others who consider themselves comparatively mobile, says Clark Pappas, national director of participant programs for the Santa Rosa, California-based Canine Companions for Independence, which has placed more than 2,500 service and hearing dogs since 1975. “They say, ‘I’m independent enough. I’ll let the dog go to someone more disabled.’”

The truth is, applicants at opposite ends of the ability spectrum are not competing for the same dogs, says Pappas, who has been affiliated with not-for-profit CCI for 18 years. Only a small fraction of dogs are suitable for clients who cannot exert physical control over them, while the majority of dogs require handlers with strength, dexterity and assertive voices. There is therefore a dichotomy in the demand for assistance dogs, says Pappas. “The demand for dogs for quadriplegics is intense, while we’re actually recruiting applicants who are less limited. This is a common industry trend.”

Diane Little Eagle of Palmer, Arkansas, says she had no idea she qualified for a service dog and would not have acquired three-year-old Caroline, a golden retriever with a sunny disposition, if someone else had not applied on her behalf. Although canines of various breeds and mixes have been trained as assistance dogs, many are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or crosses thereof. Now, after more than a year with Caroline, Little Eagle says it’s difficult to imagine life without her.

In 2001, Little Eagle was just starting to climb down from a friend’s loft, when the ladder she was stepping onto fell backwards to the first floor far below. Her wrists, arms, ribs and back were shattered. The following two years were a blur of body casts, hospitalizations, surgeries and physical therapy. At some point, unknown to her, somebody submitted an application for a service dog. “I had so many helpers in the hospital. I don’t even know who applied.”

By June of 2005, when Little Eagle received Caroline from Canine Co-Pilots, she could clearly see the benefits. “I used to get stuck in public bathrooms. The doors were so heavy. I’d wait and wait until someone would come and get me out. Now, Caroline opens the doors for me.” Caroline’s retrieval skills are essential to Little Eagle’s independence, because Little Eagle cannot bend over. “She picks everything up for me.”

Like Mesa, Caroline adapts easily to change. One day, the house is full of nieces and nephews. The next, it’s silent. Little Eagle plays loud drums constantly during powwows that last for days. Through it all, Sweet Caroline is by her side.

Initially, it was doubtful Little Eagle would walk again. Now, she takes frequent treks with Caroline—despite an unsteady gait and unsure footing—helping preserve her mobility over the long haul. “When it’s icy, Caroline knows to be right there. If I didn’t keep walking, I might lose my ability to do that.”

Caroline has expanded Little Eagle’s world in other ways. “I know what it’s like to be isolated. People look at you funny because you walk funny. A service dog not only helps physically, it helps with that incredible isolation—people who would usually not talk to you, talk to you. Even grumpy people smile.”

Children, in particular, approach Little Eagle and Caroline in public. “Kids will come up and tell me about how a person or a pet dog died. They pet her, and it’s like they’re telling her their story. She’s a real vehicle for healing.”

Others have also noticed the emotional benefits service animals bring, and there is a growing movement in some areas to recognize dogs purely for the psychological assistance they bring. Within that mystifying realm of dogs and emotional healing, however, a controversy rages about whether these emotional support dogs meet the definition of service animal.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability…”

Most would agree that a dog like Caroline qualifies under that regulatory language as a service animal because she assists Little Eagle in overcoming hurdles posed by her physical disability. Caroline is a generally accepted extension of her handler, much like a power chair is an extension of someone with paralysis. But what if the handler’s disability is mental illness? Can animals really perform tasks to mitigate that form of disability, and therefore entitle their partners to take them everywhere traditional assistance animals are permitted to go?

Yes, but only if the animal performs disability-related tasks or provides a therapeutic function, is trained in basic obedience and public-access skills, and is recommended in writing by a physician—preferably a psychiatrist—for a person with mental illness, says Joan Esnayra, PhD, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Psychiatric Service Dog Society (PSDS), a not-for-profit since 2003. “You can’t just slap a vest on your dog and go on your merry way.”

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1996, Esnayra was surprised when her male Rhodesian ridgeback, Wasabe, began bumping her elbow to alert her to behaviors signaling emerging hypo-manic episodes that she could not see coming. “It was reliable, and it was specific. That information was so valuable to me.”

Esnayra assumed such mental health support from dogs was common and searched online to learn more. Finding nothing, she started an online discussion group that grew rapidly. In 2002, she launched PSDS to educate others, promote research, develop a national network of professional trainers and advocate for public-access rights. “We want to be legitimate, legal, responsible service-dog community members, but also get the help that works for us.”

What’s working for Esnayra these days is 18-month-old Kenji, also a Rhodesian ridgeback. She says pacing her breathing to his reduces her restlessness and anxiety. “He is very responsive to me. When I’m going through a mood cycle, he sticks to me like glue.” Pappas of CCI says the ADA’s vague wording regarding tasks and service animals leaves a “huge loophole” for those who would exploit it. He’s seen everything from snakes to llamas to rabbits being claimed as emotional support animals worthy of full public access. “There needs to be better clarification and definition, legally, about what’s allowable and what’s not. There are people who are really exploiting it to take pets where pets aren’t supposed to be.”

Edmondson says psychiatric service dogs may be appropriate in some cases, but her worry is that manifestations of certain mental illnesses might endanger dogs. One organization placed a dog with a woman whose obsessive-compulsive disorder caused her to brush its coat so often that its skin became raw. “It is a disability, but the dog should never be victimized.”

Ed Eames of Fresno, California, is president of the Sterling Heights, Michigan-based nonprofit International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a coalition of some 2,000 guide, hearing and service dog partners. Eames says psychiatric service dogs, like other assistance dogs, must have exemplary public behavior and be trained to perform disability-mitigating tasks. On its website, IAADP lists dozens of psychiatric service tasks, including getting a neighbor on command, bringing medication and preventing panic by being a buffer....Continued in ABILITY Magazine

by Linda Boone Hunt

Linda Boone Hunt lives in Northern Arizona with her husband Bob and service dog Mesa. Her son Brian and sundry other relatives—including the irrepressible Mackenzie—live nearby.
Psychiatric Service Dog Society
Canine Companions for Independence 
800.572.BARK (2275)
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Ed Begley issue include Senator Harkin — Securing America’s Energy Future; Humor Therapy— Don’t Go There; Recipes — Healthy Drinks;Rights or Wrongs — Legal Stories From DLRC; Elegy For A Disease — A Personal History of Polio; Learning Katrina’s Lessons — Disaster Preparedness; Healthy Environment — Steps We All Can Take; Healing Our Soldiers — Hawaii’s MRPU; The Secret Vote — Making Voting Accessible; Book Excerpt — Widening the Circle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Excerpts from the Ed Begley issue:

Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson — Interview

Service Animals — Barking up the Right Tree

Connecticut Dept. of Labor — Gift of Opportunity

Dystonia — Deep Brain Stimulation and Medtronic

Sound Technology — For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Better Off Dead — Suicidality

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