Dogs have been assisting humans since they were domesticated well before recorded history but it wasn’t until after World War I that any formal training came about. It was in Germany that dogs were first trained to assist blind veterans. These types of dogs are probably the most recognized type of service dog. However, over the past several decades, dogs have been trained for a larger variety of services.
Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was originally signed into law on July 26, 1990, disabled Americans depended on their local communities to accommodate their various disabilities. There were no requirements for stores to be wheelchair accessible, no rules protecting the rights of service dog handlers to grant them access. In short, there were no anti-discrimination protection measures.
In 1985, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal wrote in ‘City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center‘ that the plight of people with disabilities reflected nothing less than a “regime of state mandated segregation…that in its virulence and bigotry rivaled, and indeed paralleled, the worst excesses of Jim Crowe” (as quoted in an ACLU Position/Briefing Paper dated Jan 1, 1999).
That all began to change in 1990 with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act afforded civil rights law protection to disabled Americans such as prohibiting discrimination based on disability.
These laws were further strengthened in 2009 and again in 2011. Today, the ADA includes measures such as reasonable accommodations for disabilities in the workplace as well as all public transportation, restaurants, and anywhere else that a person is otherwise legally allowed. According to the most recent version of the ADA, a Service Dog is defined as
“Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”
Today, service animals perform many tasks to assist their disabled handlers. They can be trained to detect changes in blood glucose levels, to sniff out potentially lethal allergies, detect seizures (thought to be more of an inherent trait than a trained one), assist in breaking the spell of a flashback for a handler with PTSD…the list goes on and on.
I have previously discussed some of the things a service dog can do for those of us with PTSD, but it’s worth repeating. These dogs can mean the difference between truly living life and simply existing. The can mitigate the side effects of medication, such as waking a sedated partner in an emergency and guiding them to safety. They can help a handler with the emotional overload that can accompany the symptoms of PTSD such as anxiety and flashbacks, bring medication to treat panic attacks, ground them to the present and give them a reason or ability to leave a challenging situation.
These dogs are amazing! They are giving lives back to veterans suffering the effects of PTSD and/or TBI. Veterans who have spent years hiding in their homes are finding life once again. These dogs are the reason for that progress. They assist these veterans by giving them something to focus on aside from the typical stimuli that often leads to their agoraphobia.
Its hard to believe that in 17 short days I will be meeting my service dog. I know my PTSD isn’t particularly severe, however, this dog will help me to regain a resemblance of ‘normal’. I know this path will not be easy. There are still far to many businesses who are not aware of the protections afforded by the ADA. There are people who only see a ‘pet’ rather than a trained (and protected by federal law) service animal. Restaurants who don’t realize that the ADA trumps the Health Department when it comes to access by handler teams. I know there will be access issues, but I also know that part of my training includes education on the protections afforded to me by the ADA and how to handle access challenges.
I will be receiving my service dog through K9s for Warriors but there are MANY programs out there that train these wonderful dogs. Which ever school you choose, make sure you do your homework. Some schools have waiting lists that are years long, others have residency restrictions. However, as a veteran don’t EVER consider a school that requires payment for a service dog. There are way too many other programs that don’t require you to contribute a single dime. Again though, this is where you need to research the school. Some are quite reputable, others offer little more than basic obedience training before slapping a vest on the dog and declaring it a service animal.
In the end, for the animal to be a true benefit, they need to be trained to mitigate the specific aspects of the handlers disability. A handler who needs mobility assistance needs a larger breed dog who is not only trained but capable of providing assistance. Someone who needs a dog to be able to brace them during a dizzy spell or assist them in walking due to a spinal injury wouldn’t benefit from a small breed dog who is trained to detect allergens that do not effect the handler. Make sure you are specific about what needs you need accommodated. One of the best ways to do that is to research the various tasks that can be accommodated and match those to your needs. One place to start is with the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. They have prepared a PDF document listing some of the tasks and how they can help to mitigate aspects of particular disabilities. Read through the entire document and you will begin to understand just how much of an asset these dogs can be to their handlers. As you are filling out an application for a service dog, refer to their list when listing what tasks you think may benefit you the most.
As many of you who know me have learned, I am currently waiting (rather impatiently) for June to arrive. You see, on June 3rd, I will be flying (courtesy of Veterans Airlift Command) to Ponta Vedra Beach, Florida for three weeks of training with K9s for Warriors. K9s trains and provides service dogs for Post 9-11 Veterans suffering from PTSD, and they do it free of charge to the veteran.
There are many ways a Service Dog benefits veterans with PTSD. The International Association of Assistant Dog Partners (IAADP) has put together a rather extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list of various tasks these dogs can be trained to perform for their partner. These tasks can include ‘blocking’ to create a personal space barrier for veterans who have issues with people standing to closely to serving as a ‘reality check’ to combat hyper-vigelance. They can provide tactile stimulation to break the veteran from a dissociative spell brought on by a flashback. The things these dogs can do are amazing.
Two stories come to mind, both relating to graduates of K9s for Warriors. The first involves R and his partner M. As they were taking their daily walk, they came across an in-ground hornets nest. M saved her humans life and nearly lost her own when, after her human was brought to the ground by the hornets trying to attack his face, she laid herself forcefully across his face to protect him. She received hundreds of stings, swallowing dozens of hornets. Her vest probably saved her life as the hornets stings could not penetrate it. She instinctively knew her job was to protect her veteran. Today both are healthy, still working together and doing what they can to help other veterans.
The second story concerns L and his dog S. L had been feeling very poorly and had gone to lay down to rest but his service dog S would not leave him alone. She kept licking him and pawing at him, trying to keep him from falling asleep. Finally L decided to heed S’s alerting behavior and called for help. L had been suffering a heart attack and S’s alerting saved his life. L is still recovering and S is never far from his side.
There are many more stories out there about how many of these dogs have saved human lives; dogs trained to alert for seizures, food allergies, diabetes, depressive episodes, panic attacks…the list goes on and on.
I know I am quite lucky to have been chosen to receive a service dog. Many wait for years to be selected. My hope is that this service dog will allow me to resume some of the things in my life that I have not been able to enjoy because of my PTSD. Something as simple as taking my girls to the zoo without having to leave as soon as it begins to get crowded, or going to the park and staying until they are ready to leave rather than leaving as I begin to feel hyper-vigelant due to the presence of other people as I try to keep track of three very active young girls. I want to be able to walk through the grocery store with my husband without needing to leave him halfway through and go to the car where I feel ‘safe’…hell, being able to go to the store by myself without having a panic attack. Another reason I am eagerly awaiting this gift is to assist me during therapy, when things get emotionally overbearing, he will be there to keep me grounded. Also, because I know my medications will not keep my symptoms at bay forever. I’ve already seen them faltering, beginning to become useless to my body and mind. Having this dog will ensure that when the meds stop working, I will still have that back-up to help mitigate the symptoms of my disability. I know he won’t be a cure, but he sure as hell will be an amazing tool in my healing process.
Take a few moments today to look at all the things these dogs can do for our veterans with PTSD. If you have the ability, donate what you can to help ensure that other veterans will have this priceless resource available to them. Training a service dog can easily cost more then $10,000 with no guarantee that the dog will graduate to full fledged service dog status. Some service dog academies suggest fewer than 30% of service dogs in training will graduate, the requirements are extremely high and most dogs can’t meet those standards. Some of the dogs who don’t make it can be retrained into other areas of service (therapy dog, in home service dog, etc). That is an expensive gamble that these organizations take on behalf of our veterans. If you can’t afford to donate money, perhaps you could donate your time at a local animal shelter. Many organizations that train service dogs for veterans rescue the dogs from local shelters. Or perhaps you could simply send them a short note thanking them for what they do for us. They are literally giving veterans a new life with 4 paws.