Service dogs accomplish pretty amazing feats on a daily basis. Bethe Bennett’s miniature schnauzer nudged her back to consciousness after a fall. The trained service dog also retrieved an emergency phone list so Bennett could call neighbors for assistance. A pooch named Mr. Gibbs totes Alida Knobloch’s oxygen tank so the 2-year-old can dash around with other children. Mr. Gibbs even braves playground slides with Alida. (You can see video of Alida and Mr. Gibbs below.)
Sandra Leavitt also relies on a service dog to help battle her rare seizure disorder. Nikki, a 4-year-old pit bull, was trained to detect scent changes in Leavitt’s blood and provide warning signs up to two hours before seizures occur.
“We are starting to realize what a dog’s nose means to human beings,” says Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs for people with disabilities or special needs. “There are so many applications for dogs in our society that benefit mankind. They already do; they just haven’t gotten the credit they deserve.”
While some of these heroics are known, here are five things you probably didn’t know about these working dogs.
Service dogs are not pets
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Tasks can range from calming a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder to retrieving keys from a hook on the wall; but just don’t call them pets.
“Keep the word ‘pet’ out of there,” says Paul Bowskill, general manager of Service Dogs America, a company that sells harnesses, vests and wallet cards that help identify dogs as service animals. “They are an extension of the person who has the disability.”
This also serves as another reason to ask before you pet a dog. It may be on the job.
Preparing a service dog for duty can be costly and time-consuming
Getting a dog to routinely perform specialized tasks can take months — even years — of preparation. Canine Assistants places dogs through a labor-intensive, 18-month program that begins with neuromuscular stimulation exercises when puppies are only 2 days old. These exercises, originally used to prepare military dogs, prepare the animals to handle potentially stressful situations. Professional trainers also teach dogs to retrieve items for individuals with mobility issues, and a network of volunteers places them in social situations, such as navigating an office or taking public transportation. Arnold estimates that Canine Assistants spends about $24,500 on training as well as lifetime care for each service animal.
When dogs are ready, the organization uses extensive personality tests to identify 12 to 14 individuals from a waiting list of more than 1,600 people. During a two-week training camp, dogs interact with families then make their selection.
“Until you see it, you just don’t believe it,” Arnold says. “They crawl up on their person like, ‘Where have you been?’”
Any breed can be a service dog, but retrievers were born for the role
Arnold and her team primarily work with golden retrievers and Lab mixes, noting attributes that go beyond breed characteristics.
“They love to retrieve because they love to use their mouths,” she says. “Public perception also is important for us because we want the dog to be a social icebreaker.”
According to the ADA, any breed can work as a service dog. But breed-specific bans have presented challenges for individuals who use pit bulls as service dogs. A retired police officer named Jim Sak gained national recognition after he won a temporary injunction reuniting him and his pit bull service dog, despite a city ban on the breed. Leavitt also has taken pre-emptive measures to fight breed bans, attending a city council meeting with her pit bull.
"The council tried to kick me out until I showed them the service dog card," Leavitt told the Utah Standard-Examiner. "I couldn't have her as a service dog if I had to marked her as dangerous.”
Those service dog vests are optional.
With a few exceptions, service dogs can accompany human partners anywhere that’s open to the public, including airports or restaurants. Dogs must wear a leash or tether, unless it interferes with accomplishing a task. But the ADA does not require gear identifying them as working dogs, and business owners can only make limited inquiries when it is not obvious what service the animal provides.
Organizations such as the United States Service Dog Registry sell identification gear and recommend that individuals with disabilities clearly display patches or “working dog” vests to help educate the public and facilitate access to public areas.
“Travel through O’Hare [airport] at 4:30 or 5 p.m. with a service dog that doesn’t have a vest on; it’s like going through a mine field,” Bowskill says. “They’ll still stop you, but it’s easier with a vest.”
Service dogs require care, too. But the rewards are priceless.
Dogs get sick, they get injured and they require daily care. Arnold tells prospective clients that caring for a service dog is a long-term proposition that delivers big dividends. Quest Magazine, produced by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, captures a few fun and funny stories on its website. With a service dog by their side, many people with disabilities are able to work and reach new levels of independence.
“It’s a huge commitment,” she says. “But the fact that it’s a huge commitment is a huge benefit for folks who had never been responsible for something in their lives.”
— Morieka Johnson