Getting a service dog. I get messages often asking about our process, our experience and the reality of life with a service dog.
First and foremost Haley’s seizure response dog (not to be confused with seizure alert dog-get there in a minute) is named Sofie. She is a border collie/Australian shepherd-ish mix that was rescued from a shelter at 12 weeks old. Our journey to a service dog was unique because we did not go the traditional route of fundraising the astronomical (but justifiedly so) cost of a service dog. Our journey started when Haley was referred to Make a Wish.
Initially I was ecstatic that Haley qualified for a wish, and then I grieved that she qualified for a wish. Make a wish grants wishes to children living with life threatening conditions. It was just one more reminder of how much we have to fear. But moving past that was the anticipation of what Haley would wish for. Initially she wanted to wish for a hamster. I gently explained that Santa might spring for a hamster if she wanted to aim a little higher. We had recently been to a Halloween party for kids with epilepsy in which a service dog was present. Haley was inquisitive and intrigued that the dog could keep it’s girl safe. So her official wish was “I wish for a doggie that will keep me safe when I have a seizure”.
And thus began our journey. We began extensively researching organizations as Make a Wish gave us carte blanche in choosing the right one. The first organization we considered yessed us to death. But once it came time to hammer out the details we quickly realized that they reneged on all of their commitments. We wanted a seizure response dog. This is a dog trained to respond (in Sofie’s case by ringing a doorbell and alerting us to the fact that Haley is seizing and then lying on her legs to keep her from injuring herself when she’s postictal). This agency, though initially saying they could provide that now informed us that they only rely on scent training and it would be a seizure alert dog. While this seems like a dream- a dog that alerts prior to a seizure?!- in some cases the dogs are unable to alert in real life settings even after extensive training. With this once in a lifetime opportunity we felt that we had to go with an option that was more of a sure thing. Just our preference and choice. Many people have wonderful, life changing experiences with both alert dogs and that agency.
We set about researching again- it wasn’t easy, many organizations had age restrictions that Haley didn’t qualify for-and began the process of applying for a dog with Domesti-Pups in Lincoln, Nebraska. Quite a journey from our home in Massachusetts! From our initial communication I found them heartfelt, honest and realistic. In addition to training for seizure response they also train their dogs in mobility assistance. This is imperative for Haley as she experiences weakness in one side and is often unsteady as a result of medications. Haley was accepted into their program. For the next 14 months we learned nothing-NOTHING- about the dog that was being trained in anticipation of being Haley’s service dog. Sofie spent that time training 12 hours/day, 5 days/week with an inmate in a correctional facility in Nebraska. On weekends she spent time with trainers and volunteers getting real life and public access experience that cannot be had in a prison. As hard as it was not to know, Domesti-Pups believes it is best not to divulge information such as breed or name in case the dog doesn’t work out. They are exacting in their standards for dogs that are placed. The year that Haley received Sofie they had temperament tested over 100 dogs to enter 10 into the program. There were 5 graduates.
Finally we set off to our 14 day training camp! Again Make a wish made all of the arrangements and were fantastically accommodating. Training camp was exhilarating-this was really happening, oh my God the instant bonding! And exhausting-constant, rigorous schedules of activities and training exercises to learn your dogs language. And depressing-upon witnessing Haley’s first seizure Sofie ran away from her. Through it all we were fully supported by Domesti-Pups staff and volunteers. They helped us work through our initial speed bumps and facilitated the bond that I still marvel at today.
Then we came home and life changed. My already gigantic purse became bigger as I had to accommodate dog gear like a portable bowl, water bottle, baggies. Errands became a constant stream of Oh! What’s your doggies name? And inquiries about Haley’s medical condition that varied from respectful, to curious to downright rude. Not to mention navigating the inaccurate and perceived legal rights of service dog access.
There are so many people that want service dogs and don’t feel they have the means to get one. Because of this, those of us who have them are considered the lucky ones. The chosen few. That assimilation makes it difficult to admit to, and sometimes complain about, the realities of having a service dog. Every inquiry I get I answer with this-It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. It’s hard work, and it’s hard work every day. But if you’re committed to it, it’s so so worth it.
My best advice for those beginning to navigate the murky waters of obtaining a service dog are be sure you are one hundred percent ready to commit. From the daily training, to the adjusting your expectations, to the instant red flag that you have a disability every where you go-be sure you have considered the reality of the commitment. Do your research. And then do it again. Where there are desperate people there WILL be predators. It’s not enough of a reason to miss out on how incredible this experience is, but check references, ask in forums, befriend other successful service dog teams and trainers. And know what you are looking for. Response dog, alert dog, other tasks that you desire the dog to do. And ask these questions up front, and ask again if the answer was unclear. Lastly-do not be intimidated by cost. Most organizations will give you the tools to fund raise. It takes a lot of effort, it seems daunting, but trust me it’s good preparation for the hours you’ll put into working with your dog. Do not make your decision based on cost.
Haley and Sofie have now been placed together for over a year. It has been a tumultuous year and their bond is stronger than ever. Is Sofie a perfect dog? Nope. She has her quirks and moments too. Are they perfect together? Absolutely.