Editor’s Note: This story is written in first person as the author’s experiences are important to share.
My life changed forever the night I almost died.
“911, What is your emergency?”
“It’s my wife. Her dog woke me up. Her blood sugar is 13. Come quick; nothing is helping. She is going to die.”
“Sir, did you say 30 or 13?”
“I said 13. She is having a seizure, and the entire bed is soaking wet with adrenaline sweat.”
That night, when the paramedics got there, my blood sugar was seven. Normal blood glucose levels are between 70 and 100. Had it not been for my dog, I would have died. This hunting dog, Wiggy, a “feist terrier” took it upon himself to recognize that something was infinitely wrong. A feist is a lesser-known breed of hunting dog recognized by the United Kennel Club. Its heritage is Italian greyhound, Jack Russell terrier and cur hound. They are used in hunting varmints like squirrels and other larger animals. They are gritty, but I have never heard of one being a medical service dog.
The next few days, I spent researching task-trained service dog laws and ADA accommodations. I learned that assistance animals who provide a service or task for their handler have a right to public access. I didn’t realize other dogs besides guide dogs were allowed in public, but over 80 million Americans utilize service animals to help them function safely every day, and several four-legged assistants serve right here on UCC’s campus. As I researched extensively on task training service dogs, I adapted my skills as a horse and dog trainer to a service dog trainer and began taking my trained service dog with me everywhere. That was a couple decades ago. I now use two task-trained service dogs to remain independent.
Currently, a task-trained service animal must be a canine or miniature horse trained to work with people who are differently abled. These dogs are trained to remind someone to take medication, perform deep pressure therapy to reduce blood pressure or heart rate, provide hearing alerts, pick up items, alert to allergens and provide stability in mobility assistance as well as other tasks.
Oregon law ORS 167.352 gives special protection to assistance, search and rescue and therapy dogs against interference, attack or theft. It is a special provision that makes it illegal to interfere with, harm or steal a working animal.
Violating this law is a class A misdemeanor. It can be enhanced to a felony depending on the circumstances, like first-degree theft, aggravated assault or not allowing the dog to do its job.
Interfering with a working dog is also problematic for handlers. This is often done by well-meaning dog lovers who touch working dogs without asking. This interaction interrupts the service dogs from their jobs and can create training regression.
An even larger problem for service dog handlers is loose dogs attacking service dogs.
ORS 659A.143 permits task-trained service dogs to be allowed to work off-leash for their handler, which contradicts leash laws, creating confusion between leash laws, laws about dogs in restaurants, hospitals, and on public transportation.
Dustin Cosby, coordinator of accessibility at UCC, explains what students should do to bring a service dog or service dog in training to school. “The thing that serves the student the best is a letter from a medical professional. We have evolved so much more than 100 years ago, acknowledging that people are more than their barriers. Connect with us to answer any questions on how to make a reasonable accommodation request. Having documentation on file not only protects the student, it protects the school as well.”
If someone believes that they have been discriminated against because they have a service dog, they can file a report with the department of justice. This will result in a mandatory investigation. The results of which either result in further training or penalties and fines being levied.
There are no statistics as to how many service dog teams have been on campus since the incorporation of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, but dogs have a strong presence at UCC. Emotional support animals are even allowed in housing, even when there is a no-pet policy, for example. ESAs provide comfort and companionship, but they do not perform specific tasks. And, they do not have a right to public access like working dogs. There is much confusion over this, with advertisements offering certification for people to register their pet as an ESA so that they can take them in public. They must perform a service or task.
Therapy dogs are different from ESAs. They are well-trained, affectionate, gregarious, and have the ability to connect with people. They are empathic and compassionate. Therapy dogs are encouraged to engage with people in settings like disaster areas, nursing homes, schools, libraries, and hospitals. UCC has had a team of therapy dogs and handlers like the Lutheran comfort dogs who have volunteered their time on campus in the past to offer support to students and staff.
Psychiatric service dogs, on the other hand, diligently perform tasks such as interrupting repetitive behaviors, clearing a room for safety, turning on lights, alerting handlers to someone approaching from behind, or engaging handlers to stay in the moment during a panic attack or to take deep breaths. They can create a safe space, called an “orbit,” around the handler in crowded situations in public.
A recent survey showed that people with PTSD who had ESA and psychiatric service dogs decreased their symptoms. Handlers with task-trained service dogs showed much more positive outcomes than participants with emotional support animals.
Task trained medical and psychiatric service dogs go through extensive training and fine-tuning with service dogs frequently costing from $5,000 to $17,000. Partly because of this expense, some organizations will provide trained animals to individuals in need. These animals are not pets. They are working animals who need to be treated with professional courtesy so that their training isn’t undermined.
Self-training of a service dog is permitted. The American Kennel Club offers the canine good citizen test, and public access tests are available for individuals to gauge a dog’s readiness to perform in public. Costs for these tests range from $20 up and provide a certificate of completion. Often a good measure of the dog’s progression in training is completing the canine good citizen test as outlined by the American Kennel Club. A public access test is a good measure to gauge a service dog’s readiness for the public. More than half of all service dog prospects do not complete their training for one reason or another. Often it is an environmental issue or a handler/trainer’s own barriers that limit success. As a note, some people leave their “in training” patches on their service dogs in order to protect their privacy. Not everyone with a disability wants to be identified as such. We would rather be thought of as that person training a dog, or just the person who always has a dog with them.
There is still much controversy surrounding service dogs and public accommodations. Billie Meyers, manager of Sunrise Enterprises, a thrift store in Roseburg, has experience with service dogs at their store. “Most people are pretty good. My biggest issue is people putting their dogs in shopping carts or their dogs making messes, and we must clean up after them.” As if on cue, a woman’s dog in a cart began barking at my guide dog from a few aisles away. She excused herself to handle the situation. The woman left the store.
There is no federal or state-recognized registration for service dogs. They are not required to travel with vaccination records or wear identifying gear. The exception to this rule in years past has been a letter of recommendation from a physician or mental health provider stating the purpose of the service animal. Many airlines, employers, schools, and property management companies like to have them on file, along with a reasonable accommodation request.
What is proper etiquette around a service dog? The world is full of dog lovers, and adults are the worst at not respecting working teams. Unwanted touching of service dogs, people extending their hands, talking directly to them while ignoring the handler and offering them food are all huge no-nos. Imagine the dog is an oxygen tank or a wheelchair. Ignore it, please. You are distracting a teammate. It might appear that the dog is doing nothing, but a medical service dog can perceive through scent or energy, or biological symptoms like low blood sugar, a seizure 30 minutes before an episode becomes emergent. Handlers know you mean no harm, but unless you are invited to engage with a service dog please ignore the dog, not the human. Treat us like anyone else. And, if we let you pet our dog once, that doesn’t mean it is a season pass. It is disruptive. We already receive unwanted attention with our animals. If everyone pets or talks to our dogs, it makes it impossible to do what we need to do. We appreciate your compliments and encouragement. Your support means everything to us.
If you are thinking of getting a service dog, the best suggestion is to find a good mentor. Don’t be afraid to work with a professional trainer, and don’t be too hard on the dog. Over-training is as much a problem as under-training. Many dog breeds have deductive reasoning. Giving them a chance to participate and engage with their own ideas can often be part of the process. They will often offer solutions to situations if given the opportunity.
Having a service dog means being in a committed relationship. There are no days off. There will be peaks and valleys on this road less traveled, but millions of people can tell you how service dogs saved their lives. Personally, my two task-trained service dogs allow me to remain independent.
If someone has further questions regarding ADA laws and compliance, they are welcome to call the toll-free ADA hotline in Washington, D.C. at 800-514-0301 or www.ada.gov. Dustin Cosby, coordinator of accessibility may be reached by appointment or drop-in hours by calling 541-440-7900 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Hadley-Rayn Harris at: