You see him lying there on the café floor, taking a nap under the table. A family with two small children walks by – one child points to the dog as he passes. The dog lifts his head up to gaze at them - then, without a sound, gently rests it back on the floor. The café barista “pings” the service bell and calls out your name – your order is ready. You see the dog’s ear twitches at the sound of the bell but it doesn’t change his demeanor. He doesn’t even leave his position under the table. That’s when you notice the dog’s harness.
Five minutes later, you watch as the dog’s person calls the dog out of his slumber to come to her side. The woman leans on the big dog to get out of her chair – that’s when you notice the woman shaking as she struggles to stand. She rises with the dog as her brace, then together, slowly, you watch them walk out of the café. A man holds the door open for the woman and her dog – he even comments on how handsome her dog is. The dog catches the man’s gaze with a little wag of his tail and then it’s right back to business – he must help his woman walk out to the bus stop safely. After all, he is a service dog – and he has a very important job to do…
The Making of a Superhero
A service dog’s job is not an easy job to fill. Many dogs do not have the level of confidence, self-control, patience, problem-solving skills, or healthy level of independence required to handle the day-to-day human operations of office buildings, travel systems, public forums, restaurants and malls – no matter how much we try to make them have these skills. Teaching a dog a specific task associated with a disability is often the easiest part; it’s building the lifestyle skills that lead to superb behavior in public venues that takes much longer.
Service dogs, emotional support animals, therapy dogs… there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about their differences, what purpose these dogs serve, their rights to access public spaces, and what kind of training they must complete to become capable of performing their jobs. Many people have disabilities that can be aided by a use of a service dog but they don’t know where to start in terms of their training. Alternately, there are many people who take advantage of the loopholes in the current system just so they can take their pet dogs into stores or on airplanes with them.
What Does a Service Dog Do?
Service dogs are task-trained to assist a person with a mental or physical disability to perform certain tasks they cannot do on their own, such as guide a blind person around obstacles, serve as a brace or open drawers for a person with mobility issues, or interrupt a panic attack for a person with debilitating anxiety or PTSD. While they do also provide companionship, this is not their primary job.
Maria Huntoon, CBCC-KA