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Service Dogs for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Amanda Bennett with her best friend, "Zebbie". Picture from South Carolina Living Magazine

Dogs are not just pets, according to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). These respectable canines are great companions for those with physical and mental disabilities ranging from Epilepsy to Rheumatoid Arthritis to severe Depression. These intelligent animals are capable of physically helping some 50 million disabled persons to perform everyday tasks while providing emotional support.

The ADA defines a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”. Although it does not list every single qualifying disability, it infers Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) to be a legal disability.

Despite Rheumatism being an internal chronic auto-immune disease, it inflicts arthritic pain and causes physical deformations in patients. With RA, performing the most basic daily tasks such as carrying items, opening doors, and walking can become nearly impossible without assistance. RA often cause people to feel alone, helpless, and even depressed. They should know, however, that there are many ways the ADA is there to support them and in particular, with service animals. Organizations such as the nonprofit group, Caroline Canines, provide educated, four legged friends to assist the disabled with major life activities.

Amanda Bennett, for example, was endowed with Zebulon, a 4-year-old golden doodle. Battling Rheumatoid Arthritis, she has been in a wheelchair since the second grade. With this debilitating disease, she applied to be matched to a Caroline Canine and months later, her best friend “Zebbie” came along. Other than providing assistance with basic tasks such as laundry, he also helps Amanda cope emotionally and socially. Instead of people staring at her in a wheelchair, they are more interested in the dog,

“With Zebbie, I kind of open up a little more. And people aren’t looking at me, they’re looking at the dog and they’re more friendly”.

Disabled persons like Amanda Bennett are able to enjoy outings with their service dogs, as the American Disability Act (ADA) actually overrides the state and federal laws in regards to the discrimination of people with service dogs in private businesses. In other words, with a service dog, the “no pets allowed” signs do not apply in places such as restaurants, taxicabs, theaters, or retail stores.

Understandably, many business owners scruple the vitality of a service dog because they are uneducated of what a “disability” is and moreover how a service dog may assist someone. By ADA standards, a service dog is defined as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability”. They often do not recognize invisible diseases to be disabilities and therefore try to deny those with accompaniments. In such situations, it is important to prove that the service dog meets the ADA requirements.

Being able to follow commands in public with multiple distractions is only the basis of a service dog’s legal expectations. However, there are far more, depending on which type of disability applies and the longevity of the disability. Just as the disability is long term, the dog’s training program requires a time commitment of two years for completion. Many situations require specifications to meet the daily obstacles the person faces. There are hundreds of programs that correlate with the ADA by providing intense training programs for service dogs.

Training starts early in a dog’s life. When a puppy is donated, primarily from animal shelters or rescue centers, to a training facility they spend their first 8 weeks to 6 months just socializing with other dogs and people. Like other puppies, they learn basic commands such as “sit”, “watch”, “mark”, “down”, “come”, and “stay”. Many treats are given in this stage, especially when they succeed in overcoming the stress of being introduced to orthopedic tools such as wheelchairs and crutches.

The level of difficulty of training is exponential for the dogs. In the next stage, the dogs learn the important “heel” command. The trainers work on the dog’s level of focus by dropping toys and favorite items around them.  Being surrounded by temptations are difficult for the dogs, as they must stay focused to master their tasks. These exercises prepare the dogs for stressful situations, such as being able to respond to a command to cross a busy street. A dog must stay confident in their ability to maintain their focus and serve the disabled on their leash.

The next, and more advanced, level of training prepares dogs to work off the leash while following commands. At this point, the distractions are at a maximum, as they are taken out in the public for longer than one hour to perform their regular tasks. It is at this stage where they are exposed to clicking heels of business people, limited sidewalk space, horn honks, police traffic whistles, and more. If a dog is successful in their performance, they are accepted to the final training program with a foster family.

Volunteer families provide care for and expose the dogs to common public places such as grocery stores, restaurants, malls, and medical facilities. These frequent outings aquaint dogs to using all of their senses, especially smell. This is an important stage because it prepares dogs for the more unpleasant, but necessary, moments of their service work, such as being present during bowel movements and providing support for major medical procedures. Zebbie, for example, stays alongside Amanda during her MRIs. Not every dog could stay calm and committed during such intimate moments. When they have lived with the volunteer family for a few months, the dog completes a few trail sessions with possible matches.

Some matches have instant chemistry, while others take a few extra weeks. It is important for both the dog and the person to feel the connection, as they will spend almost every hour of each day together. When the right person if found, the service dog works with the disabled person at the training facility for a number of weeks until they are compatible enough to perform at home. While the dog is learning about the person and their strengths and weaknesses, the disabled are mastering how to interact with the dog with commands and gestures. It is the most special kind of relationship and takes time.

When three months have passed, the trainers visit the home to assure the match is perfect. The dogs are taken to the veterinarian once more to ensure that the weight is not too stressful for the dog. Amanda Bennet and Zebula were perfect for each other because his hips were strong enough to support her weight. With many precautions and exercises completed during the matching process, most matches are perfect. There are times, however, that it does not work out. In these situations, the dogs are then taken back to the facility to find a better match. The trainers fully protect the dogs and love them as their own service dog, as they have worked with them for a long length of time. Finding the perfect match is important to them.

While the trainers support the service dogs, The American with Disabilities Act supports them as well. The ADA regulates the laws in regards to service animals for protection of the disabled and service dog relationship. While disabilities vary, the level of a task’s difficulty does as well. Service dogs provide both physical and emotional support. While many business owners are scrupulous of what exactly a service dog provides for a person, it is important to meet the ADA’s requirements of a service dog and give the dog basic training for public situations. For more severe situations, such as Amanda Bennet’s, service dogs are put through a two year training program which entails several levels of commands and distractions. When all levels are completed, a foster family prepares the dog for it’s family match, where the dog will spend the rest of it’s life and he or she will live happily ever after.

 

Great Resources:

International Assistance Dog Week 
“Cole and Lee A Service Dog Team”
Amanda Bennett and Zebbie
Americans with Disabilities Act: Service Animals
Americans with Disabilities Act Home Page

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