“Theo appears to be resting as he lay beside me. The doctor’s office was exceptionally busy today, people moving around, talking loudly and bustling behind me, which is never a good thing. I look at the clock and then look down and I stare at Theo, memorizing the way every hair lay across his back and the way his whiskers move slightly as he breathes. My heart is racing, my breathing is shallow, my vision becomes dark and blurry and the headache starts to set in. Suddenly Theo’s head comes up, his ears perked and he stares at me fully alert, his eyes scan my face and I look at the concern in his eyes, first he licks my hand once and then places his head on my leg. Somewhere in the distance, I hear a tiny voice say, “Isn’t he cute…” Like a train entering a tunnel at full speed, real-time rushes in……people, light, images and noise flash into my brain.
What appeared to be a dog sleeping at his owner’s feet and oblivious to his surroundings, who then rises to show affection by a lick and is, by appearance, seeking attention, is actually a service dog completing a trained task. Theo watches me not only with his eyes, but with every sense and instinct he possesses. He hears my heart rate and knows when it becomes high or abnormal. He smells the change of chemicals in my body, he senses tension or panic. This subtle movement is his way of bringing me into the moment, he gives me a familiar and safe focal point and he makes me smile, sometimes that smile is only on the inside. The task he is trained to perform will begin subtle and escalate by degree. As a first indicator, he will lick my hand or place his head on my lap. If I don’t respond, he will put his paw in my lap. Next he will stand and put his chest on my legs and continuously nudge me and then, if I have still not responded to his alert, he will place both paws on my lap, stand up and push his body against mine. Gradually increasing his “alert” until I respond, giving him acknowledgement or removing myself from the physical place I am in. I have come to recognize even a slight movement of his brow or paw on my foot to know when he is beginning an alert, which helps keep me from getting to deep into a no-win situation.
To list them all would take pages-upon-pages. There are websites easily found through a search on the internet that list specific tasks trained. A service dog is trained to mitigate a disability and is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allowing them access to all areas the public are allowed to go. An emotional support dog or a therapy dog is not covered for public access under the ADA. Service dogs are now being trained to support a multitude of disabilities. Hearing dogs are trained to alert their handler to common sounds like a doorbell, tea kettle or alarms. Dogs are trained to accompany adults and children with Autism to assist them in life skills, social situations and communication. Dogs are being trained for many medical specifications like diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs and dogs trained to mitigate PTSD symptoms. These dogs can smell changes like a drop in blood sugar and detect early warning signs of a seizure or debilitating panic. Mobility dogs are trained to stabilize individuals with balance issues, “brace” to assist someone in standing if they fall or stand from sitting, help with ascending and descending stairs or curbs, these dogs can pull lightweight wheelchairs as well. The guide dog is trained to assist the visually impaired by halting at curbs, redirecting their partner in a hazardous situation, and to find items and locations. A service dog’s ultimate goal is to assist each individual, with specialized tasks to mitigate individual disabilities, many times mitigate several disabilities so their human can lead a potentially happier, healthier and more independent life.
Not all dogs are good candidates for the life of a service dog, that can be determined early as a puppy, or not determined until well into training. A service dog candidate is temperament tested and then begins training, training can take up to 2 years or more, and training is never complete. A service dog continues to learn new tasks and practices current tasks. In addition to the basic commands like sit, stay and down a service dog learns a battery of about 40 standard tasks like down-stay, sit-stay, hold (hold an item in their mouth), retrieve and identify items such as medicines, telephones or canes. I have heard of dogs learning up to 170 commands. Theo, on command, picks up anything I drop from a crutch to a quarter, a piece of paper or my purse.
Theo is trained to mitigate my PTSD symptoms as well as mobility issues due to nerve damage in my left leg and back. Below is a partial list of tasks, beyond the basics, and those previously discussed that he is trained to perform:
- He searches the house every time we return from an outing.
- Turns on lights so I don’t have to walk into a dark house or if I have a nightmare.
- Braces on command to assist in standing, sitting, and aid if I stumble or begin to fall.
- Tow assistance with ascending stairs, and brace descending stairs for balance.
- Brings clothes, phone, television remote, shoes or medicines.
- Picks up any items from floor including dropped items, food bowls and clothing.
- Alerts me to people approaching.
- Alerts me with one bark that someone is outside of my home.
- Places his body in front or behind mine making a barrier between others and myself.
- At counters he will sit facing behind me to watch for people coming close behind, then he will block, if needed.
- Intelligent disobedience; he will redirect me in the correct direction, if I have given him a command to “Go to car” or “Go to ODS” or “Find the exit” if I am disoriented due to panic or dissociation, he will halt and redirect to get me to command location.
- He will lie on top of me and provide deep pressure to calm me in time of panic (this can be placing his head on my lap, laying across my lap in public, to laying across my body after nightmares or if I am on the ground immobilized during a PTSD episode).
- He alerts me to rising panic, chemical changes or irregular body language.
- He directs me to move from a place that is causing distress (mobilizing my “freeze”), wakes me from nightmares and is a focal point to keep me “present” in times I would normally dissociate.
A service dog is a great deal of responsibility, for me my life changed for the better with him by my side. For me it is worth every bit of effort and the best decision I could have made. He has changed my life, he altered my course and I am now going in a positive direction. He has given me the confidence to enter society again on my own terms, go back to college and seek out my dreams; he has helped me achieve my successes. He has been there during the good days, and he is there during the bad days. We have been side-by-side, every minute of every day. He has kept me going forward. He continues to give me hope. He is my partner and he is my friend. I can easily say he has saved my life.
In my next guest blog I will write about what it is like to attend college with a service dog.
Positive light always,
Joey and Theo