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North Hills Monthly

Service Dogs Provide Owners with Independence, Peace of Mind

Jan 30, 2017 07:43PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

4 Paws for Ability family

Old Yeller, Marley & Me and My Dog Skip belong to that perilous category of movies that should be viewed only with a Costco-sized supply of tissues nearby. While these tales of loyal, lovable and intelligent canines can bring even the most taciturn moviegoer to tears, Hollywood dogs have nothing on the real-life canine heroes who provide independence, safety and comfort to people with physical or emotional challenges.

Most people are familiar with how seeing-eye dogs can assist individuals who are sight-impaired, but canines today are being trained to help people with a variety of specialized needs. Service dogs receive the highest level of training, and learn specific skills to assist a person with a documented medical (physical or psychiatric) disability.  

Kelly Camm of 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio, explained some of the ways a service dog might help. Depending on its training, a service animal may provide an alert for individuals with seizures, diabetes or autism. For those with physical limitations, the dogs may be able to open doors, retrieve dropped items or serve as a set of eyes or ears.

Service dogs can engage in “behavior disruption” for a person who is autistic. For example, if a child is stimming (self-stimulating behavior such as hand flapping or rocking) or banging his head, the dog is trained to nuzzle or provide deep pressure by lying on the child. Children with autism sometimes respond to the dog’s silky coat and are soothed by petting it. Many autism-assistance dogs learn search and rescue, so they can alert caregivers and then find an individual who has wandered away from home.

Service animals, emotional support animals, therapy dogs and even pets may receive specialized training, but only service dogs are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The distinction is important because of accessibility. Through the ADA, service animals are allowed in most public areas, including airplanes. 

Service dogs are unique because they have been trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. Emotional support animals, though they may be well-behaved and provide comfort, are not allowed the same kinds of unrestricted access. The distinction can be confusing for the public, said Susan Wagner of Perfect Fit Canines in Pittsburgh. Casual observers would likely be unable to differentiate between an emotional support animal and a service animal. 

Not every dog is meant to be a service animal.

“Temperament, temperament, temperament!” is the key quality trainers look for in potential service dogs, according to Camm. The dogs must be fun-loving, able to work, not territorial and able to respond to commands. Although individual dogs of any breed can exhibit such qualities, Camm said that Labradors and golden retrievers tend to have the desired characteristics. German shepherd-golden retriever mixes are an ideal dog for service work, Camm explained, because they are highly intelligent and sweet-natured. 

Melissa Mayer, owner of Emma’s Angels in Greensburg, PA, provides one-on-one canine training across the spectrum of family pets, therapy dogs, emotional support animals and service dogs. Mayer often works with rescue dogs from nearby shelters and screens them carefully by trying out different scenarios to see how the dogs will respond.

Because they will be in schools, restaurants and other public places with all kinds of distractions, service dogs must be almost perfect, Camm explained. Wagner said that the dogs have to be bold enough to do their jobs but still social and obedient. 

It typically takes 18 months to two years to train a service dog. Mayer requires her canines to pass a Good Citizen test, complete therapy dog training, and log an additional 250 hours of training time. 

Perfect Fit Canines starts introducing its puppies to the outside world at eight weeks, when they are placed with volunteers who take them out in public to malls, parks and stores, as well as to obedience classes.

“Socialization is key to their development when they are young and through the duration of their training,” Wagner explained. Pennsylvania’s laws are helpful, Wagner said, because service dogs in training are allowed virtually everywhere a trained service dog can go. 

Matching the right service dog with the right person or family is also important.

Leslie Heilman found her daughter’s service dog, Miles, through Perfect Fit Canines. The process involved significant work. Heilman and her 13-year-old daughter—the dog’s primary handler—attended six weeks of intensive training with other service dogs before being matched with their own animal. Upon completion of their training, the family attended a “meet and greet” with potential candidates.

Heilman laughed as she described the matching process as being a little like an episode of The Bachelor. The day they met possible service partners, four different canines came into a room to interact with her daughter. After observing all the interactions, a panel of judges was unanimous in its decision that Miles, a black English Labrador, was the best fit for the family.

After welcoming Miles to their home in November 2016, the family had to complete a 14-day boot camp and they continue to check in on a regular basis with email reports about how Miles and Heilman’s daughter are adjusting. A trainer from Perfect Fit Canines visits their home to assist with training. 

Despite the time commitment, Heilman said Miles has been well worth the effort. He is trained to put his paws on his handler if she experiences anxiety and can find an adult if needed. She adds that he also helps with interpersonal relationships because when a dog is present, interactions between humans are usually positive. Having tried a variety of approaches, Heilman said that Miles has proven to be an effective adjunct to the more traditional therapies and medications.

“It was a life-changer,” Heilman said. “It’s hard to measure, but it’s had a huge impact on her life.”

Lisa Stefanko, whose 13-year-old son James has an autism-assistance dog, described a similar experience. The family was paired with Spyro, a golden retriever-black Labrador mix, through 4 Paws for Ability in October 2016. 

Spyro is trained in “social bridging”—he wears a vest that instructs people to ask if they can pet him, which often prompts helpful opportunities for James to interact with new people in ways typical for any young teen. Spyro also provides behavior disruption. When he senses his handler becoming frustrated, Spyro will nuzzle James. The dog’s intervention causes her son to laugh every time, Stefanko said. 

Trained in sensory support, Spyro takes the place of the weighted blankets that help many children with autism sleep better. Although Stefanko is delighted by the ways Spyro has helped her son, she acknowledges that the work is substantial.

“If you’re going to have a service dog, you put a lot of effort in,” Stefanko explained. She and James work daily with Spyro to maintain obedience training and practice skills. “It’s not for everybody, but for us, this was the right thing.” 

While training service dogs is time-intensive and expensive, it’s tough to put a price on what they offer their human partners: increased independence, improved quality of life and peace of mind.