For About and By Caregivers
Life With Dottie
By Suzanne Ponciroli

I always thought helper dogs were for blind or hearing impaired people. As I began to learn more about these dogs, I realized they also offered a variety of assistance to people with physical limitations. 

Service dogs can be trained to retrieve objects that are out of reach; pull manual wheelchairs; open doors and turn on lights; retrieve help; assist with dressing or undressing; and assist in many other ways. Some service dogs are specially trained seizure response dogs and there are dogs trained to offer a person counter balance when ambulating. One less tangible benefit is that these dogs can actually expand your world by giving you opportunities to get out and meet people. 

My service dog, Dottie, and I take walks around the neighborhood every evening. Each evening, between 5:00 and 6:00, she brings me her leash. We never come home not having socialized with people we encountered. Interactions are usually prompted by Dottie and then switch to me.

How Do I Get a Service Dog?

 There are various programs throughout the country.  Some programs serve only a particular region and others do not have a defined territory.  Costs vary, as do lengths of waiting lists. To help you assess if a program meets your needs, here are some questions to consider when choosing a service dog program:

  •  Does the organization offer to train your dog or does it train only their dogs?
  •  What kind of assistance is their service dog trained to provide?
  •  Does the organization provide services only to a certain territory? You want to make sure you are in their service area.
  •  What are the costs to the recipient?
  •  Is there an age restriction? Some programs take children and adults and others limit how young the recipient can be.
  •  How long is the wait to get a dog?
  •  How long is the training camp for you with your dog?
  •  What are the costs to you for the camp? Some programs pay for training camp costs such as room and board, and others leave these expenses up to the recipient.
  •  Is there support after the training camp?
  •  Many organizations will allow you to apply online; however, if the Web site does not answer all your questions, there is usually a number to call.  The Web site referenced below lists many of the service dog groups:

What’s a Training Camp?
Training camps are a time when the recipient learns to work with their dog. The dog is trained–now you need to be.  Service dogs know many commands before being paired with the physically limited person.  Camp teaches you how to train your dog to perform tasks specific to your needs.  

After leaving camp, it did not take me long to realize one of my specific needs. My dog left her toys all over the floor and, being in a wheelchair, this made it very difficult for me to get around. Using the command “clean up,” I taught Dottie to pick up her toys and put them in her toy basket. Her little trick really impresses young visitors AND their parents.

Is a Service Dog Right for Me?

An important question to ask yourself is if you are prepared to be a responsible dog owner? These animals are wonderful companions, but they are still large dogs that need to be let out to toilet; managed for fleas; brushed to control shedding; and taken to the veterinarian for routine health maintenance. Additionally, training reinforcement is an ongoing responsibility. 

A service dog can help a person become more independent,  feeling happier and better about their life. There is a lot to consider before making the leap in that direction but, if you decide this path is right for you, it can be life changing.

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