My best couch buddie is Elke, my big, sooky, lovable German Shepherd Dog. On good days we play ball and take short walks. On bad days we watch The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. She’s a big fan.
But after reading a few articles on the web, it occurred to me that she could actually be capable of helping me in many other ways. She’s a big, strong, loyal breed. She’s a particularly laid back GSD, with a very gentle temperament. And she and I are best buddies. I’m the boss of the house and she is very definitely ‘my’ dog.
I have done some basic training with her, just your basic sit, stay, come when she’s called and a few cute tricks, like shaking hands, playing dead and giving high fives.
She isn’t exactly 100% on point with her tricks and behaviours. But she gets it right most of the time. Ok, some of the time.
Like most dogs, she just wants to hang out with her person and her people. But she could be much more than a couch buddie for me. Service dogs can perform a range of tasks to help a person with a disability, including:
- Open and close doors, cupboards, drawers the fridge, etc
- Pick up dropped items, keys, phone, remote controls, etc
- Press the button at traffic lights
- Help put washing in and out of a front loading machine, drag a washing basket
- Help remove items of clothing, jackets, socks, etc
- Provide physical support if the person is unsteady or has the potential to fall. And help the person up if they do fall.
- Alert bark if their owner is in distress or danger
Service dogs also assist in more emotional ways, for example:
- Give greater freedom and independence
- Reduce the need for a human carer
- Increase confidence and self esteem, especially in public places
- Give companionship and love and support.
Service dogs are allowed in almost all public places. They are permitted in shopping centres, on public transport, even in restaurants and areas where food is served. They have a lot of special privileges and may not be denied access, or charged a fee for entry to museums, galleries, theatres, cinemas etc. Each state in Australia has slightly different rules and regulations, but once licensed a Service Dog is entitled to access almost anywhere a person is. Some airlines allow Service Dogs to travel in the passenger cabin, but different airlines have different regulations. They may be refused access to areas where there is a public health risk, such as food preparation areas, or intensive care wards in hospitals.
To be given this level of public access, however, they must be extremely highly trained. They must not be aggressive, anxious or startle easily. They must be hygienic and not defecate or urinate in public. And they have to be able to tolerate all kinds of attention, because Service Dogs, by their nature, attract attention. Even though their jacket clearly says ‘Do not pat me’, people, especially children, will rush a Service Dog and want to pat them, and cuddle them, and perhaps inadvertently pull ears and tails and tread on tender toes. Through all of this, the Service Dog must remain calm and quiet. So they need a very particular temperament. Gentle, patient, intelligent and tolerant. For starters.
Most Service Dogs in Australia are trained by organisations/charities for a specific purpose. They either rescue the dogs from shelters, or raise puppies and then train them to be placed with a person with a disability. Some are for people with physical disabilities like diabetes, epilepsy, ms, arthritis…and others are for people with Autism or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other psychological disorders.
For me, my dog will be a bit of both. I remember I fell in public, a long time ago now. But the humiliation remains. I fell. Everyone stared. I had a lot of trouble getting back up. No one helped me. I think they assumed I was drunk or something like that. If I’d had a service dog with me, people would have understood that I have a medical condition that causes me to fall and faint sometimes. Even more importantly, no one would have had to help me, because my dog would have stood next to me, and allowed me to pull myself up, using her as a support.
Dogs are the best people.
Another time, same shopping centre, I was abused for carrying three items in a shopping trolley. A Service Dog would have identified me as a person with a disability and prevented the scene that one rude woman caused. And prevented the humiliation, stress, upset and lingering anxiety for me.
Since those events happened, I recognize that I have less confidence when I’m in public on my own. Sometimes I experience anxiety. Usually on bad physical days, I now also become anxious of whether some asshat will make life even more difficult, because my pain and disability are invisible. A dog will identify me as someone who needs space and hopefully the asshats will give me a wide berth.
Back to the point. Organisations that train service dogs and then place them, will not place a Service Dog in a household that already has a dog. There are good reasons for that, but it would have precluded me from getting one of their dogs. Additionally, the waiting lists are very long, and someone such as myself would be unlikely to ever get a dog.
One organization quotes the cost of training each dog at $27,000. And they are most often placed with people who are permanent wheelchair users. Which is fair enough. There are people who need a dog far more than I do.
There is, however, another option. An organization that helps you train your own dog to be a service dog. I called them to find out what the process would involve and was quickly told that their waiting lists are closed. I asked a few more questions and we talked some more, and then the gentlemen who owns the business really wanted to help. He asked me where I lived. He explained he had a trainer, just qualified, who could possibly help me. She has a disability, and has a service dog of her own, trained through his organization. She lives somewhere within 30km of Canberra. Which is very close to me.
He agreed to talk to her and give her my details, and if she was interested in working with me, she would contact me. Four hours later, we were chatting, and it turned out that she lives about a five minute drive from me. Almost in the same suburb.
We met, got along fine, and the deal was done.
She has an acquired disability, through disease, though she hasn’t told me the specifics. She is a power chair user, but can walk a little. She hasn’t volunteered much about herself as yet, but as we get to know each other she is telling me a little more, in tiny pieces. Her disease is degenerative, and she is very understanding of how it feels to be losing ability and looking a future of getting worse, not better. She has a lot of knowledge about Rheumatoid Arthritis, and on our second meeting she bluntly asked me when I was going to accept that I am going to need a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. She is direct and assertive, but also kind and compassionate. I know that everything she is telling me is coming from the heart and a genuine desire to help me. It is still a very confronting experience for me though. She can see what most people can’t, because she has been there. Different disease, different abilities, but she knows.
She is the person I needed to meet right now, in so many ways.
She came to meet Elke, my German Shepherd. And after an initial session, she agreed that Elke appears to have a good temperament and a lot of potential. She said if I agree to put the work in (and there will be a lot of work) and do everything she asks of us, she will help us, and charge me a reduced rate.
At $60 per hour, it’s still a considerable expense, but it will be well worth it. She understands that I am on a disability support pension and am a single mother with two kids. She will teach me as much as possible during each one hour session, then it’s up to me to practice the behaviours with Elke and get them perfect. There are also two training guides to buy and they will also help teach me how to train Elke.
In addition, she asked me to sign up for Obedience classes with the local dog club, which I have done, and Elke and I are doing basic obedience classes there weekly. We had our second session yesterday.
This is also helping to socialize Elke, and she will complete the training there to an advanced level. As a side benefit, it’s getting me out of the house and meeting new people, no matter how bad the pain is that day. I know the day will come when I can’t drive myself there. But I’ll deal with that when it happens.
With my private trainer, I will decide on a list of disability specific behaviours for Elke to learn, and work on those as well. Then, when Elke is ready, she and I will have to pass a test to have Elke certified and licensed as a Service Dog. This may involve a trip to Melbourne or Brisbane. I’m not even sure. It’s a lot for me to take in, and I’m just not going to worry about that yet. It will be a good reason to take a holiday as far as I’m concerned. We’re all overdue. Or maybe it’s possible that she can be certified here. One step at a time. I will work it out when we get that far.
My trainer completely trained her dog in three months. But she was very knowledgeable and had the time to spend. My current health is very poor. The best plan is to run several short training sessions per day, to reinforce the behaviours. Five sessions of five minutes with five behaviours, every day, was recommended. That doesn’t sound like much, but I know that’s not realistic for me right now. I’m keen to get the training completed, but we will do it at our own pace. We’ll get there. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. We WILL get there.
And the last thing that’s required is for Elke’s grooming to be top notch. If she is to be allowed into public places, especially shops and places where food may be served, her coat has to be in excellent condition and shed as little as possible. She has a longish coat that sheds badly. So she needs fortnightly or four weekly (we’re still figuring that out) professional grooming sessions. Yes, they are expensive too. In addition, I’ve had to change her to a better quality dog food, and after only two weeks I can see a huge difference in her coat. She is shedding much less! I wouldn’t have believed what a difference it would make, but I have a lot less dog hair in my Roomba now. She loves the premium food, but of course it’s also much more expensive than the supermarket brand I was feeding her. No small financial undertaking this Service Dog thing!
Infact it’s a huge undertaking, on every level. But its giving me something very worthwhile and positive to focus on. I’m enjoying the training, and Elke is too. It’s giving me purpose. Which couchlife doesn’t offer much of.
And when I’m done, there is the potential that I could help other people train their own dogs to be service dogs. Help other people with disabilities. Improve other people’s lives. Service Dogs are not common in Australia. But maybe I could help change that.
That’s a VERY long way down the road, but that possibility very much appeals.