Dogs have been man’s – and woman’s – best friend for hundreds of years. But service dogs take that friendship to an entirely new level. Service dogs have been active in society for decades to give people with a wide range of disabilities a more active and independent lifestyle. In the past, a service dog or guide dog (not to be confused with therapy or emotional support animals which are different) had usually been associated with serving individuals who experience blindness, seizures or deafness. They are in fact trained to help with mobility issues and can open doors and retrieve objects for their companions. Yet, fairly recently, service dogs are receiving more notoriety for their training in assisting veterans who are returning from war zones and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries or other physiological and psychological trauma.
These intelligent animals can be trained to help keep PTSD survivors calm, wake them from nightmares and even summon help if they sense the need. A qualifying service dog is specially selected and then must go through rigorous training that can cost more than $20,000. This intense training is just one aspect that separates them from canine companions, a support dog or your everyday pet.
There are many organizations that can help pair a veteran with a service dog free of charge, but many stringent requirements must be met for consideration. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can help put qualified veterans in touch with a certified agency where those who may need a service dog can apply.
If you think you or someone you know may benefit from a service dog, here are some things to consider before making a final decision.
Get a comprehensive medical evaluation.
You will need detailed medical diagnoses and accompanying paperwork to apply for a service or guide dog. You can get exams and paperwork through the VA system or through healthcare providers not necessarily affiliated with the VA.
How will a service dog help me with my disability?
Think carefully about how a service dog would enhance your daily life. Do you need help with specific tasks that only a trained service animal can provide? If not, a rescue dog as an emotional support companion may offer the services you need and mitigate the stringent requirements involved with qualifying for a service dog.
Is my home life stable and secure?
The relationship between a service dog and their adoptive owner is a two-way street. You must be able to prove that you will give the dog a good home with lots of love. Also, other questions need to be addressed: Does anyone in the family have allergies? Does everyone in your family love dogs? Are there other pets in the home? If you become incapacitated for a time or need hospitalization, who will care for the dog? Are you prepared to take the dog with you everywhere such as restaurants, grocery stores and on vacation? Remember, like most dogs, your new companion will need exercise and loving care daily. You must have a backup plan in place to care for the dog if for any reason you cannot for any length of time. Also, any boarding costs and grooming costs are covered by the human companion.
Can I afford to provide veterinary care, food and toys for the dog?
Caring for any pet incurs some level of financial responsibility. That obligation can be magnified with a highly qualified service animal. So, if you choose to go through the VA, it’s important to note that they do not cover required veterinary care for the dog or day-to-day items such as food, treats, toys, routine dental care, emergency veterinary care and over-the-counter medications or other costs. Be prepared to provide financial records to prove to the service dog agency that you can care for the dog for their lifetime.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is currently reviewing legislation known as the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) Act. This legislation would implement a five-year pilot program to provide service dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD. Organizations providing these service dogs would receive a grant and veterans would receive ongoing support from the dog provider for the rest of their lives. Below are some online resources that provide more information if you are interested in a service dog.
Not only can these furry friends provide a great amount of safety – they can offer different means to greater independence. Not to mention the amount of loyalty and companionship you’ll be able to enjoy!