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How to Get a Service Dog for Every Assistance Need

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Service dogs assist over 80 million Americans! They perform a variety of tasks that support those with disabilities. Most people are familiar with guide dogs for the blind. However, service dogs are available for many disabilities: physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental. If you need a dog for a critical task, you qualify for a service dog. If you were wondering how to get a service dog, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn more!

Service Dogs and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” The service dog performs at least one critical task for you. These include:

  • Serving as your eyes
  • Alerting you to sounds you can’t hear
  • Helping you move
  • Alerting you to changes in blood sugar levels
  • Sensing a seizure
  • Scanning a room before you enter

The ADA protects you and your service dog. Legally, people can only ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

In most cases, people only question if it isn’t apparent your dog is a service dog. A lot of people dress their dog in vests marked “Service Dog.” You do NOT have to have your dog demonstrate any tasks. You also do NOT have to describe your disability. The ADA provides this protection EVERYWHERE.

Obtaining a Service Dog

It’s difficult to admit a disability. “Disability” has a negative connotation in society. Unhappily, the first step in obtaining a service dog is an acknowledgment that you have a disability. Without a diagnosis from your doctor (NOT Dr. Google), you won’t see a service dog any time soon.

Many organizations that provide service dogs have strict requirements:

  • Be at least 12-years-old*
  • Have a stable home environment
  • Be physically and mentally capable of participating in training (at least one hour a day)
  • Be independently capable of issuing commands and handling the service dog
  • Meet the physical, emotional, and financial needs of the service dog
  • Not have any other DOGS in the household (other pets are okay)

*Children with autism or epilepsy are allowed service dogs. However, they have requirements in addition to those above:

  • Be 6-12-years-old
  • Be enrolled in an education program
  • Enroll in a speech, physical, occupational, or recreational therapy program
  • Have strong familial support
  • Have a parent, guardian, or family member over 18 living in the house to serve as the home-trained facilitator

Finding Your Service Dog

You CAN train a service dog yourself. However, training takes YEARS. You need to take your limitations into account. How difficult will the training be? The other option is to seek out a service dog organization.

Service dogs ARE expensive. There are two associated costs: the adoption fee and the training fee. Bear in mind you’ll participate in training, too. You need to learn commands and how to work with your dog. The ADA doesn’t set standards for training. However, international standards recommend 120 hours over six months. During that time, they recommend 30 hours out in public.

Sound like a lot? It is and professional organizations set HIGH standards. The drop-out rate is 50-70%! (Don’t worry – drop-outs get adopted) These dogs HAVE to meet the following criteria:

  • ZERO aggressive behaviors
  • Stopping of sniffing behaviors EXCEPT on command
  • No solicitation for affection or food while on duty
  • No hyperactivity in public
  • Able to tolerate novel sights and sounds in public
  • No unruly behavior or barking
  • No relieving themselves in public EXCEPT on command

That’s a lot to ask of a dog! It’s also a lot to take on yourself.

Luckily, there are amazing organizations out there that provide financial assistance, low-cost, or even no-cost service dogs.

Service Dogs by Type

Every disability is different, and service dogs are specialized. Your specific needs dictate which service dog to look for. (Please note, some groups are listed above)

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs are the most well-known service dogs. The first recognized service dogs, they date back to the 1920s. Guide dogs lead visually-impaired and blind around obstacles.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs assist the hearing-impaired and deaf by alerting them to noises (alarms, doorbells, etc.). They accomplish this by touching their person and leading them to the source of the sound.

Assistance Dogs

Assistance dogs provide a variety of functions, depending on the person’s disability.

For people with mobility issues, dogs bring objects, press automatic buttons on doors, serve as a brace, or help pull wheelchairs up ramps.

For people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), service dogs enter rooms first and switch on lights, serve as a physical barrier out in public, and remind the person to take their medications.

Alert Dogs

Alert dogs assist people who have conditions such as diabetes or seizures. They scent changes in blood sugar or the onset of seizure activity and attract their person’s attention. People with diabetes then know to test their blood sugar. People with epilepsy do what they can to position themselves safely.

In comparison, seizure response dogs alert those around their person that a seizure is happening. They may move their person from unsafe areas or bring them medication.

Children with autism have improved lives with companion dogs. Such service dogs prevent the child from wandering away, or they track the child.

Service Dogs and Independence

No one likes admitting they need help. No one wants to admit they’re different. If your disability is invisible, you don’t want to stand out.

However, if your life has the potential for improvement with a service dog, those admissions aren’t so bad.

If you’re willing to commit to the training required, you can obtain a service dog and form a lasting partnership. You won’t regret it.

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria grew up in a pet-friendly household. On weekends, the family made trips to zoos and aquariums in the area. So it wasn’t a surprise when she gravitated toward a career with animals.

After six years working among the background operations at the Philadelphia Zoo, she gained a unique insight into the veterinary world. The vet staff provided her first lessons in terminology, the identification of medical equipment, and glimpses of radiographs (x-rays). She also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to talk with everyone, including the veterinary technicians. And they offered an alternative for someone NOT interested in surgical pathways: Namely, their course of study.

Andria enrolled at Harcum College. Philadelphia boasts two programs for vet techs, but only Harcum works with the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania’s small and large animal facilities, respectively). Harcum’s vet tech students receive six months of hands-on teaching and experience alongside Penn’s vet students.

With the opportunities and connections available with one of the top veterinary schools, the decision was easy for her to make.

New Bolton Center: Large Animal Medicine
Andria ended up trudging through snow up to the knee and shivering in subzero temperatures during her winter semester, but she wasn’t disappointed with her choice. New Bolton provided a thorough grounding in large animal medicine. A horse-lover as a child, the experience renewed those old emotions.

And a few memories stood out and remained to this day:

  • Standing alongside a Clydesdale and feeling TINY
  • Holding the reins of a horse galloping at top speed on a treadmill
  • Nursing tiny foals through the first days of their life

Ryan Veterinary Hospital: Small Animal Medicine
Veterinary students can legally work at a practice while studying. Andria took advantage of the opportunity, gaining “real life” experience while attending class. It provided a slight advantage when she entered her three months at the small animal hospital.

However, as Ryan Veterinary Hospital offers treatments unique to the veterinary community, she continued to gain valuable experience. For instance, she spent a day working alongside their Chemo Team. The positivity of everyone she encountered – staff, clients, and patients alike – left a lasting impression.

Additional standout moments included:

  • An afternoon spent with the head of the feline kidney transplant program
  • A day serving as the anesthesia technician in their new radiation unit
  • Recognizing a radiograph of a giant elephant shrew (applying her previous zoo knowledge)

Emergency/ICU Veterinary Technician
Accompanying her Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, Andria received a passing score on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The two led to her certification/license as a veterinary technician – first in Pennsylvania (CVT) and later in Virginia (LVT).

Emergency medicine appealed to her from the beginning. The flux of ailments, injuries, and even species kept her mind sharp at all times. The knowledge required to handle cats, dogs, exotics, and even wildlife is highest in an ICU setting. When a vet tech never knows the patient’s stability coming back to the treatment area, skills and the ability to respond in an instant always stay in peak shape.

With treatments evolving at a constant basis, Andria sought out the best Continuing Education opportunities. She attended the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (IVECCS) Conference whenever possible. This allowed her to discuss the latest wound treatments, medications, and advancements in diet formulations.

Cardiology Veterinary Technician
With the increased knowledge and experience, Andria noticed gaps in her abilities. Her grasp of cardiology remained at the basic level. She wanted to boost her skills and understanding as much as possible, improving her patient care. When an opportunity within the practice arose to move into the cardiology department, she accepted.

She sharpened her ability to read ECGs, recognizing arrhythmias of every type. Speaking with the cardiologist, she learned to read echocardiograms, picking out the most common disease processes. And, courtesy of her position in the department, she took in everything she could regarding the grain-free diet concern.

And throughout her ten-year career, she built her store of client interactions. She learned stories of heartbreak and hope. In the middle of the night, she shared touching and humorous conversations. Every moment taught her to engage with people. And the skill blended into her writing ability, capturing the interest of pet-lovers everywhere.

Check out Andria’s LinkedIn here

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