medical alert dogs

So this is how my day went today...
  • Me: *completely minding my own business sitting in a corner*
  • Man: “You don’t look like you need a service dog.”
  • Me: “She’s a medical alert dog.”
  • Man: “What is that?”
  • Me: “I have a medical condition that she alerts to.”
  • Man: “How does she do that?”
  • Me: “She can smell it on my breath before I have an episode. When she does, she tells me.”
  • Man: “But you don’t look sick. Do you really need her?”
  • Me: “Um, yes… I do.” *starts to panic as I’m alone and this man is creepy*
  • Man: “What is your medical condition?”
  • Me: *shaking and completely pissed off now* “Uh, that’s kinda private… ”
  • Man: “So clearly you don’t need her then.” *walks away*
  • AND PEOPLE THINK IT’S “FUN” TO HAVE A SERVICE DOG WHY??
A Quick Reminder

If you’re not disabled, you can’t have a service dog. Everyone gets anxiety, tons of people get panic attacks. If your disorder doesn’t affect your day to day life and ability to function its not a disability. I don’t even know why people who aren’t disabled would want a service dog.

(Edit): To clear up some chaos on this post:
There are tons of mental illnesses that can often be disabling. My point is: a lot of the time, people overplay their anxiety to bring a PET into stores. My dog is a psych dog, he has a very important job but just because my anxiety is disabling doesn’t mean yours is. Speak to a mental health professional before thinking about getting a service dog.
Dear people who insist on helping me,

STOP. 

I understand that you are just trying to help but let my dog do his job. Let me open dorrs for myself, let me “struggle” to do things. 

If when you were learning to walk as a child, and everytime your parents saw you struggling they just carried you instead, would you have learned how to do it efficietnly? 

No. 

If you ask me if I need help, and I tell you “ no thanks, I can do it” 

TAKE MY WORD FOR IT. 

the other day, and I was lifting my wheelchair into my car, and a lady walked by and asked,” do you need help?” I politely said “ no thanks” 

But yet she insisted and came over and tried to help me, and it was really akward for me, because I  can lift my own chair thx very much. 

 When you hold doors open for me right as my Service dog goes to press the open button, you are taking my dogs job away from him, discouraging him, and dissapointing him. 

You are not “ ahaha, I guess he feels lucky he didnt have to do it” 

NO. STOP THAT MINDSET. 

MY DOG LIKES HIS JOB. 

He ENJOYS it even. 

And you just took it away from him. You have discouraged him because he thought he was going to press the button, he was going to show his handler what a good boy he was, and get praised for it, and now you have taken that away from him, so next time we come to a door, and there ISNT ANYONE AROUND, he’ll hesitate, maybe take a little longer to press the button. 

Same thing with when I drop things. My dog LOVES picking up things for me. \

DONT DO HIS JOB. 

Long story short, if I say no thanks when you offer help, dont force yourself on me. 

IF I WANT HELP, I WILL SAY SO. 

repeat with me. 

IF A DISABLED PERSON WANTS HELP, THEY WILL ASK FOR IT. 

*Mic drop*

2

Esmeralda, Standard Poodle (2 y/o), SuperZoo, Las Vegas, NV • “She’s a medical alert dog; I have panic attacks and she’ll alert me before they happen. She barks at storms. She won’t pee when it’s raining. Her hair is dyed just like people hair. She loves it and sleeps while I do it – it’s our bonding time.” @esmeralda_the_pink_poodle

 So, I have three asks in my inbox that are all fairly similar regarding service dogs, so I’m going to answer all three of those here with an anecdote from tonight. The asks were all in the same vein of agoraphobia/anxiety/service dog making things easier. Can a SD make things easier in these situations? Yes and no. Yes, because your dog will have tasks to help mitigate your disability and help you in your day to day life. No because OTHER PEOPLE. Here is a quick story from tonight illustrating this. This was not an unusual night - it was fairly average on the people-encountering scale:

(Note: I do not have any kind of anxiety, Rogue is a cardiac alert dog with a bright pink-very visible-vest with clearly marked patches saying to not distract. This was at 10pm on a Friday night at my local Shaws. I needed a frozen dinner, located right by the entrance.)

Normal 1-item run to grocery store. If I had chosen to quickly run in, get the item, pay, and run out, leaving Rogue in the car, the trip would have taken less than five minutes total in the store itself. I use the self checkout which no one ever does at Shaws for some reason, and the item I needed was right by the door and the checkout itself.

My heart rate and BP have been iffy all day and I’m having a weird balance day, so I opted to take Rogue in. We have both just come off an eight hour work day. We’re hungry and tired. Halfway from the handicap parking spot to the door, I get stopped by an employee asking if Rogue is a service dog. I say yes (actual gatekeeper question), and he says Rogue is pretty and we go on our way. I step into the store, immediately have a small child run over asking to pet Rogue. I politely decline, she asks me why. I tell her Rogue helps me and she needs to pay attention to me (Rogue remains at a heel). Kid runs off to her parents. I approach pre-made dinners, put Rogue in a sit-stay at my side out of the way of the aisle, debate if I want steak or chicken, an adult approaches me asking what kind of dog Rogue is. I give a quick “german shepherd,” look back to the dinners and she starts asking me where I got her and how old she was. I give quick answers and TURN MY BACK to her, hoping she will go away. I get my food and she makes kissy noises at Rogue, to whom I immediately give a “pfui” (no/leave it in german) and “fuss” (heel). Woman calls that I don’t need to be rude and I ignore her. 

I get up to the self checkout and another employee comes up and asks if she can pet Rogue. I say no, she’s working, try to rush through my checkout while Rogue is in a sit-stay. Employee calls over other employees and they discuss my dog to each other, about six feet from where Rogue and I attempt to check out. Finally, my receipt prints and I leave. On my way out, the first employee stops me and asks me if I’m training her for someone, I respond that no, she’s for me, and hurry to my car.

I was in the store for fifteen minutes. Ten minutes longer than I would have  (at least) if I had left Rogue in the car. This was an average trip for 10pm at night. Had I gone during normal hours, I would have been in the store longer.

Think very carefully if this is a reality you can deal with if you choose to have a service dog as part of your medical arsenal. Your dog ends up attracting SO much attention to you, and you need to be able to handle it - and so does your dog!

Selecting a Service Dog Puppy

When it comes to Service Dogs, selecting the right animal is always important. It is often hard to know how to select a dog when wishing to owner train or buy a puppy to send to a training organisation. Here I will discuss some of the techniques and tests used to select dogs as suitable Service Animal candidates. Please note that there are MANY different tests and theories on how to best select a suitable dog. This guide will not list everything; it will be a resource that aims to educate and aid handlers in some of the important tests that aid Service Dog selection. Not every dog that passes these tests will necessarily have what it takes to be a Service Dog. The wash-out rate for Service Dogs is incredibly high- especially when they are required to do complex tasks such as alerting to seizures and drops in blood sugar.

Whilst this post specifies that the tests are for selecting a Service Dog puppy as a prospect, the majority of these tests can also be used to assess fully grown dogs such as those in shelters that you may be considering as your Service Dog partner. 

WHAT BREED?

Any breed can be a Service Dog. Despite this, there are some important issues to consider when thinking of getting breeds that do not necessarily fit the conventional Service Dog stereotype such as Labs, Retrievers and Poodles.

  • Access issues. Unusual breeds of Service Animal are often prone to more Public Access challenges due to standing out and not matching the stereotypes that people have in their minds.
  • Suitability. If you need a mobility dog, it doesn’t make sense to have a Chihuahua as your Service Dog. Make sure that the breed you select is capable of performing the tasks that you need it to.
  • Health issues and lifespan. Whilst some larger breeds such as Great Danes are used as Service Dogs, they have a shorter lifespan. Training a Service Dog is time consuming and expensive so it makes sense to get a Service Animal that will be healthy and live for a good amount of time.
  • Breed Traits. This is not always a highly limiting factor, but it is something that is definitely worth considering. Some dogs such as Huskies and Shiba Inus have high energy levels and are renowned for taking their time to learn tasks. Whilst it is good to acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule, it doesn’t hurt to consider breed characteristics that may affect your dog’s ability to perform tasks successfully. Breeds such as German Shepherds are highly intelligent and are becoming more popular as Service Dogs, however their guarding instinct is a common cause for failing Public Access tests due to growling and being overprotective of their handler. When selecting the breed of your dog, be sure to investigate what common traits they possess and how you plan to tackle these in training to avoid issues.
  • Personal Requirements. Are you willing and able to groom a longhaired dog daily? If not, then you should not get a Service Dog that requires regular grooming. Do you have allergies to dogs? If you do, consider looking into breeds that are better for those who have dog allergies (such as Poodles).

TESTS

Most Service Dog organisations perform tests such as those listed below when the puppies reach 7-8 weeks of age. These tests do not fully determine characteristics such as temperament since the dog is still developing. The tests aim to assess natural instincts that make a dog more likely to be successful in training such as their food drive, attention to the handler and recall abilities. It is often good to go with a breeder that has either bred Service Dogs before or has breeding dogs from Service Dog lines. It has been proven that dogs who do well in these tests and are successful Service Animals are more likely to have offspring that are also highly suitable and successful in the Service Dog field. These tests should be performed with each puppy from the litter being separated from its littermates and other animals to avoid distraction.

  • Noise/Recovery Test- Drop an object that will make a loud noise (such as a metallic food bowl). Assess the dog’s reaction and how quickly it recovers from the experience. Commonly the dog may react to the sound and jump but it is how the dog chooses to recover and approach the situation that is most important. Curiosity and sniffing of the object is a positive sign, fearfulness and running away is not desirable.
  • Lap Test- Put the puppy on your lap. Observe its body language and how much it relaxes. If the dog relaxes and responds by making eye contact or trying to reach your face for attention this is desirable. If the dog cowers and tries to get off your lap, it does not pass this particular test.
  • Sociability- Put the puppy by your feet and pet it. If it stays by your side, offers eye contact and enjoys the interaction it passes. It is also acceptable for the dog to stay by your side for attention, leave to explore before returning for more affection. If the puppy runs away or seems nervous, cowering or shivering as it receives affection, this is undesirable.
  • Recall- Have the breeder or another person move the puppy a few steps away. Call out to the puppy to get it to come over to you. If the puppy comes over with no hesitation this is a very good sign. If the pup takes a little more persuasion but eventually comes this is also alright. If the pup ignores you entirely or wanders off it is considered as a fail for this test.
  • Prey Drive- Have a toy such as a rope and drag it around on the floor. If the dog grabs the toy and shows curiosity in chasing after it, this is a good sign. If the dog behaves in an overly aggressive manner or is fearful/disinterested of the toy, this is an undesirable result. It is important not to select a dog that has a huge prey drive for Service Dog work, however it is good to select a dog that has a healthy degree of curiosity and is willing to work and show interest.
  • Retrieve Test- Scrunch up some paper into a ball and throw it a short distance away. If the dog picks it up and brings it back to you this is a great result. If the dog picks it up and brings it part-way back to you this is also good. If the dog runs over to the toy but does not pick it up or return with it, this is still a good sign of curiosity, but not as good as the first two reactions. The dog fails this test if it simply watches the ball without reacting to it or ignores the action completely.
  • Hearing/Curiosity test- Use a squeaker toy to initiate the pup’s interest. This test is also a simple hearing test. If the dog comes over to investigate the squeak, this is a good sign. If the pup fails to turn or turns but does not come over to investigate after more squeaks this classes as a fail for this test.
  • Tug Test- With a rope toy, initiate some simple play. This test is important for dogs that are going on to be mobility dog performing tasks such a pulling open doors. Desirable reactions include: latching onto the toy and tugging or holding onto the toy briefly before letting go. Less desirable reactions include showing interest in the toy but not knowing what to do and ignoring the toy.
  • Food Drive- Place some high reward food such as meat between your fingers and test the dog’s interest in it. Desirable reactions are: sniffing and working to try to get the food with its tongue, sniffing and trying to get the food before eventually giving up. Undesirable reactions include showing little to no interest in the food, showing no real desire to get it from between your fingers.
  • Willingness to work- Get the dog’s attention with some high reward food such as meat. Then place this food underneath a small container whilst the dog is watching. If the dog starts sniffing at the container and trying to get to the food underneath, this is a good sign. This test aims to see how much the dog is willing to work for a reward. Poor results include ignoring the container or showing no interest in getting to the food underneath.
  • Unusual Interaction Test- Get an assistant to start waving their arms around whilst shouting and causing a scene. Service Dogs have to be used to working around a variety of different people. This test aims to assess how they cope with unusual people and situations. A good reaction includes: curiosity, watching and wagging the tail. A bad reaction includes: fear, signs of wanting to escape the person and growling or aggressive behaviours.
I’m so confused right now...

Faith has been alerting me periodically all day. First time was at about noon. It was a solid alert, but nothing happened. I took it as a false alarm.

About two hours later she alerted me again with more intensity, but again… nothing happened.

A few hours after that, I was sitting in bed reading when she litterally slammed her entire body into me, started frantically whining, and used BOTH paws to alert me. I told her to get off, as I was getting increasingly annoyed with these “false alerts.”

But now, about 7 hours after her initial alert, I’m in bed with a HORRIBLE migraine. I can hardly see anything, I’m incredibly nauseous, and no joke… hearing my own heart beat hurts.

So a question for other dogblrs with medical alert dogs– was Faith false alerting and this is just a big coincidence, or could she REALLY have sensed this migraine SEVEN HOURS before it started?

Chayton, Cane Corso (13 m/o), Washington Square Park, New York, NY • “He’s a medical alert service dog. He likes to sit on stairs and is very athletic, like a circus tiger.”

5

Some recent Chance! We went to a local pride festival (Chance was off duty) and he did amazing. There were tons of other dogs and the most he did was whine a bit if he got really excited. There was an incident with a dog who barked and lunged at him, to which Chance whined and stood up on his hind legs but I quickly removed him because the other person wasn’t taking any moves to control their dog. Other than that he did great and I’m very excited to have him be on duty at the next festival we attend.

How to Interact with a Service Dog

First of all, you are going to have to excuse my French on this one. This is a VERY sensitive topic for me and other service dog handlers. If you see a service dog in public, leave it alone! That’s it! Don’t talk to it, don’t make kissy noises it at, don’t act like a child and “oooo” and “aaaah” at it as if it’s some magical unicorn or something. Remember, service dogs are not pets; they are MEDICAL EQUIPMENT! You wouldn’t say “Awe! What a cute wheelchair that is! Look hunny! A wheelchair!” Of course you wouldn’t. If you do, that’s stupid of you. Talking to medical equipment is stupid. Talking to a service dog is stupid. Got it? Good. On the same note you wouldn’t go up and PET someone’s cane, wheelchair, crutches, etc. Talking to it is bad, but coming up to someone like “Oh my GAWSHHHH! Your hearing aids are adorable!! Can I pet them please?” is down right idiotic. Sounds funny, right? It’s not. It REALLY isn’t. The struggle for service dog handlers is real. How would you like it if you couldn’t go anywhere without someone stopping you every 5 minutes? Okay, what if you were disabled and hardly able to go out at all, yet people still keep stopping you every 5 minutes? I’m sure you’d be pissed as hell. And you wonder why service dog handlers have snarky attitudes towards people sometimes. Seriously. DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE TOUCH A SERVICE DOG!!

Now that that’s covered. Let’s have some heart to heart shall we? A service dog is more than a cane, a wheelchair, a hearing aid, etc. It is a living breathing thing with a mind and an INCREDIBLE stress put on their shoulders to keep their handler’s safe. Minds can get distracted no matter how much they try. It is their job to react in a split second if anything goes wrong. What happens if you were messing with a service dog in public and they got distracted? What happens if the dog missed a life saving alert because he was too focused on trying to behave and ignore YOU? A missed alert can be a matter of life and death. Let’s say the handler has a seizure a few minutes later and because the dog was unable to alert, the handler wasn’t able to get to a safe spot or tell someone what’s about to happen. She falls and hits her head on the corner of a desk. I don’t like to be negative, so let’s say she makes it. But she very well could have died that day. She could have DIED because of YOU! Now how would you feel about that? You fucking killed a person all because you were distracting her service dog. Think about that. 


Nope. Don’t continue scrolling just yet. REALLY think about it next time you encounter a service dog.

I’ve said it once and ill say it again. I wish people were more educated about service dogs. Sure, now days many people are becoming more used to seeing a dog in their local target, or not being alarmed when they see a pup in a restaurant. But i wish they went deeper for the sake of not only our dog’s accreditation, but also for the sake of handler’s comfort.

For example, the other day, Pippa and i were sitting in lecture, and she was sitting beside me, as she does in every class (that or by my feet), and everything was good for the first ten minutes. Then, she got up, and put both of her paws on my lap. When this happened, i could almost feel the ridicule from the people who were sitting around me. It felt like i could literally hear the thoughts of “oh yeah such a great dog” or “fake service animal” going through their heads. Now of course this could be the anxiety talking, but it made me feel very uncomfortable. 

The worst thing about it? That is an alert that Pippa is trained to do when she senses a migraine or a panic. she has three alerts that she does, all of which were chosen from what she did naturally already. None of these alerts seem to be “good dog” behavior, but thats because if it was a simple look or a sniff, i would constantly be distracted looking to my dog to see if she was alerting. alerts need to be something you will see, something out of the ordinary, and something that will make you act on it.

And that brings me to my next point of fake service animals. If fake service animals didn’t happen, i wouldn’t get this ridicule from people when my dog alerts, or even is having a bad day, which yes, she does have. I shouldn’t have to feel like everyone is judging me when my dog alerts. i shouldn’t have to feel like everyone thinks my dog is a fraud just because she is having and off day, and doesn’t feel like doing what she’s told in that particular moment. If people didn’t try to pass off their dogs as SDs, i wouldn’t have this issue. So lesson number one? Don’t try to make a pet into a fake service animal. 

Lesson number two is to think about what the dog could be doing before you pass it off as fake. If you see a dog low growling, getting on a handlers lap, or pawing at its handler, it could be doing exactly what it was taught, and not just misbehaving. Many tasks for SDs include something called deep pressure therapy which is when the dog literally lays on the handler, or puts weight on the handlers body to help. Another common alert is pawing. if a diabetic has low blood sugar, or if someone with celiac is about to eat gluten, they need to know quickly and efficiently.  Keep that in mind. And maybe instead of judgment, you could ask the handler if everything is okay when you suspect a dog is alerting. I would much rather that than grimaces as i walked out of the classroom to go take my migraine medicine. 

Service dog education is something i will never go without giving, so please if you have any questions, feel free to ask me! 

How to Obtain a Service Dog...

In order to have a service dog, you must be legally disabled. Disabilities can be visible (blind, wheelchair bound, you need a cane to walk, etc) or invisible (anxiety, depression, hearing impaired, chronic pain, seizure disorders, allergies, etc, etc). Not only must you first be disabled, your disability must be so severe that it limits one of your major life activities. Major life activities as defined by the ADA include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. If your doctor can attest to this, then you qualify for a service dog. If not, I’m sorry. You do NOT qualify and should not get a service dog.

The next step to obtaining a service dog is to talk to your doctor and get his approval. If you are going though a program​, your doctor will most likely have to write a recommendation for you stating why you need a service dog. This is not needed if you are owner training, but it is needed if you plan to travel with your service dog on airlines or live in non pet friendly housing. Once you and your doctor are on the same page about you getting a service dog, you need to think about what the service dog would be trained to do. Think about what you cannot do for yourself, or all the ways that your disability limits your life. Once you have that list, next to each item write a task that a service dog could be trained to help. For example, if you have a seizure disorder, a service dog can be trained to alert you to oncoming seizures so you have time to make it to a safe place or take medication. If you have an anxiety disorder a service dog can be trained to alert to oncoming panic attacks, provide tactile stimuli for grounding, g​uide you out of a certain location, etc. The possibilities are endless! Be creative, but also be realistic.

Once you have your list of tasks down, it’s time to start searching for a dog! If you have never owned a service dog before, or do not have EXTENSIVE dog training knowledge/experience, then I highly recommend going though a program. Programs typically have a 1-3 year wait list, and prices range from $7,000-30,000 depending on the program and the tasks you need trained. If however, you feel confident that you can train your own service dog, than you can explore the option of owner training. Even owner training requires help though. It is always best to enroll in obedience classes, and work with a professional service dog trainer. Keep in mind though that the cost to buy, train, and care for your service dog prospect will equate to the same (or sometimes more!) as purchasing a program trained dog. Seeing as it takes 2-3 years minimum to fully train a service dog, the wait time will also be the same or more as a program dog. The only difference is the heartache involved. VERY few dogs have what it takes to be a service dog. Prepare for multiple wash out candidates before you end up with “the one.” What are you going to do with one, two, four, even FIVE plus dogs that have had to be washed out from service work? Please note that I am NOT trying to discourage anyone from owner training, I’m just trying to state the facts and help you in whatever path you decide to take. Faith was owner trained on my first attempt, but I was very lucky. Several service dog handlers can attest to this. I know more handlers than not that were not so lucky and have ended up with multiple wash out candidates that have had to be re-homed, surrendered to the shelter, or kept. 

I wish you the best of luck on your service dog journey!​