SERVICE ANIMALS

People often ask me about Shaggy, my service dog, and about how he helps me on a day-to-day basis, and how I have been able to incorporate him into my daily life.  I have learned a little bit about service animals and a lot of the administrative/legal regulations regarding their use.

I received Shaggy from a small organization in Palm Beach, Florida, that I was introduced to through some friends I met attending a weekend retreat with The Renewal Coalition.  The organization is called Canines Assisting Military Veterans Organization (C.A.M.O.) and is run by Casey DeGeorge and Michael Lorraine.  They rescue dogs and train them to serve wounded veterans.  I can’t say enough positive things about this organization, but they were truly incredible to work with and significantly aided in my recovery/rehabilitation. 

Maura and I have always loved dogs and have had pets since we started dating.  Shortly after we got married, we rescued an American Bulldog named Murphy, after we were up late one night watching a show called “Animal Cops” that documents animal cruelty and the individuals who catch and prosecute such crimes.  As cliché as it sounds, it was after viewing the long commercial for the SPCA that featured a sad song by Sarah MacLachlan when Maura and I looked at each other and decided we should rescue a dog.  We decided the dog should be calm, not get up when we came home, and one that no one else was going to rescue.  Within a week we found Murphy at the Fredericksburg SPCA, and she certainly met our criteria.  She was old, extremely calm and ugly (she had scars from fly bites all over her tail, burns on her hind legs from being left outside on concrete all day, and almost no teeth because she was so hungry she ate rocks) and we brought her home the next day.  She had a good few years before she passed a month into my first deployment.

We got another American Bulldog, Murphy II, when I got back from deployment.  She was a puppy and was a good addition to the family until she attacked our other dog Abner and almost killed him.  We gave her to a family where she could be the only pet, since she could no longer be a part of our family.  

When I was injured and began my recovery, I tried to maintain an attitude where I refused to embrace any help or things that might mean that my injuries were permanent.  I have always been a stubborn person, and I stubbornly opposed things like electric wheelchairs, minivans, home modifications and service dogs.  Eventually I relented and realized that my opposition to such things would not aid in my recovery.  It was shortly after that time when I was introduced to Mike Lorraine and offered a service dog that could help me in my daily life.

I worked with Mike, and Shaggy, for a period of two weeks learning how to utilize his skills and incorporate him into my daily routine.  Shaggy can retrieve items and bring them to me and hit light switches/elevator buttons among other things.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it certainly has helped in situations where my keys have fallen underneath my car, or the wheel to my wheelchair has fallen just out of my reach while getting out of the car.  I probably could have waited until someone walked by and flagged them down for help, but Shaggy helped out without missing a beat.

Besides retrieving things for me, Shaggy also helps out psychologically and emotionally.  Often, I get a lot of stares and weird looks when I am out in public.  Kids are curious, as they don’t encounter people in wheelchairs often.  Adults often have other reasons for staring at me.  Some have told me that I don’t look like I belong in a wheelchair, which I have learned to take as a compliment (kind of), while others just blankly stare and continue walking towards me unaware that I can’t get out of their way and that I use the cutouts instead of jumping up curbs.  I recently have gotten a lot of angry stares when I pull into the handicapped parking spot, because most people just assume I am some young punk with a sense of entitlement, until I get out of the car.  Shaggy helps in this respect because he receives the awkward stares instead of me.  I have a feeling he doesn’t like them either, but people quickly transition from the awkward stare to intrigue, as Shaggy uses his charm to disarm them.  I know it sounds weird, but traveling in any crowded public area usually heightens my anxiety level and produces unnecessary stress.  I generally have a limit as to how many awkward stares I can tolerate in a given day, and Shaggy has really assisted me in this manner.

 

Rules/Regulations:

I am by no means a lawyer, but have researched some of the Federal regulations regarding service animals and their use.  Mainly, this is covered in sections of the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Air Carrier Access act, and the Fair Housing Act.  There are also state and local laws that apply to service animals.  The best snapshot regarding Federal regulations I have found is located on the ADA website 

Ultimately, the service animal is allowed to go wherever the disabled person is allowed to go.  There is no requirement for them to be marked or distinguished with a vest or collar, although most owners do so just to avoid unnecessary confrontation.  There is also NO requirement to register them with any federal agency.  There are some groups that are lobbying for a national database to provide legitimate verification that your animal is a ‘qualified’ service animal, but just like anything the government controls, there would be inherent discrepancies and difficulties with enacting such a database.  Mainly, the broad range of different tasks service animals can provide leads to very different definitions people have regarding service animals.  This was recently captured best by a group fighting for the VA NOT to pay to provide guide dogs to service members that are blind.  Initially, I thought they were crazy, but they explained that the variance in training and certification would lead to a high degree of corruption.  Some trainers think they can work with a dog for six weeks, advertise it as a service dog, and charge $35,000 for the animal.  Others, like Shaggy, was trained for a minimum of two hours daily for nearly 18 months.  Additionally, they explained that the current model works, and that there are numerous organizations that will donate competent service animals to wounded veterans.

The service animal is allowed to go to hotels and on planes for free, and this often tempts some individuals to pretend their pets are service animals to avoid the increasing costs of traveling with your pets.  The negative side to the lack of regulation with these animals is that there are a few that have behaved poorly, doing things like biting people or demonstrating they are not housebroken, and have created a general aversion to all service animals as a whole.  I am a proponent for the current model, with very limited regulation, and think that the industry and its professionals will police their own much better than the government-regulated system could.  People are also not allowed to discriminate against animals and are only allowed to conduct a limited inquiry, asking if the animal is required due to a disability.  They also are allowed to refuse access to an animal if they show that they are out of control and the handler fails to bring the animal under control, or if they are not housebroken.

 

Training/Selecting an animal

The type of animal the person selects should be based on their disability and how the animal can best fill the gaps in that person’s ability to live independently.  Different capabilities are valued accordingly, and training with the animal should work to mirror the requirements identified.  For example, Shaggy is trained to work without a leash, in fact, the first time Maura tried to walk him with a leash he quickly escaped and took her for a quick jog through the neighborhood.  I placed a high value on getting a dog that could work without a leash because wheeling around with an animal tethered to my chair may have hindered my mobility.  Other individuals enjoy working with dogs on leash because they can then use the animal to pull them if they need assistance in getting around.

In my research I also came across other types of service animals that I found interesting, including service monkeys and service miniature horses.  They seem like they also have their place in helping people but I couldn’t be happier with Shaggy and would certainly choose him over any other service animal if I were in that position again.