It’s Not Always Service with a Smile!


Assessing the Pros and Cons of Owning a Special Skills Dog

Dogs and people — we see them everywhere. A dog guiding a person who is blind around the neighbourhood has become a common sight. But as everyday as it may seem in our busy streets, it’s still remarkable that some people with disabilities can entrust their very lives to the senses of their dog guides.

I think most of us still marvel at the abilities of these animals, the relationships they are capable of developing with their partner with a disability, and the incredible independence these animals offer to their companions. It opens up a whole new world.

The use of seeing eye dogs dates back to the 1920s. Since then, dogs have been trained in a variety of skills. They have been developed to enhance their innate capabilities to assist individuals, offering everything from hearing (for people who are Deaf) to pet visitation (for seniors or people who do not leave the home) to seizure alert (for people with epilepsy) to other special skills.

Today, the area of therapy animals is growing in leaps and bounds, with more and more advocacy towards owning a special skills service dog. These dogs open doors, pull wheelchairs, pick up dropped articles, alert someone to ringing bells and telephones, protect people from danger, assist and balance those with muscle weakness, and even save lives. Offering companionship and love, the dogs comfort lonely people and broaden personal contacts and relationships. Some even learn to go shopping, and can almost cook dinner! The list is endless, and sounds very positive.

These animals are really good for many people, complementing their partners with disabilities in so many ways.

Take, for example, Deb Willows of London, Ontario, and her five-year-old standard black poodle, Lego, whom she has had for three years now.

Originally, Deb applied to several Service Dog Schools in the U.S. for a dog, but she did not even get a response. Fortunately, she later saw a demonstration by the Canine Vision School in Oakville, Ontario, and approached them.

Deb waited four years to get Lego, but she feels it was well worth the wait. Her personal motivations for deciding to get a special skills dog included, first and foremost, her love for dogs. But beyond this, Deb felt a dog like Lego could provide her with more independence. Being single, she wanted the dog to assist her with daily tasks so she wouldn’t have to rely on other people. She also wanted some protection, which Lego has been able to give her.

More than this, Lego has become the best friend she could ever have. He really helps Deb, doing all those things special skills dogs do. He picks up things, opens the fridge door, pulls her wheelchair, and turns the lights on and off… and on and off… and on and off… yes, he even has a sense of humour! According to Deb, Lego plays games with her by trying to “trick her” with the lights. He does turn them off at night, but will tease her by turning them on again — and then look at her as if to say, “Fooled ya!” He will stop once Deb says, “Stop it,” at which point he turns the lights off, only to try and sneak into bed with her later!

Deb claims she has never had any real difficulties with Lego. Her main complaint has been problems with the general public, who try to talk to him, pat him or feed him when he is in his working lead. Or they encounter people who just don’t like dogs, period. She has had few problems with accessing public places, and has run into only one situation in which she and Lego were denied entry onto a cruise ship for a one-hour tour.

Deb has also never worried about being able to take care of Lego. She has attendants who assist in feeding him and let him out in the back yard, where he has been trained to relieve himself. Deb brushes and plays with Lego and says he gets her out for lots of walks. They even fly together, two to three times a year. She claims Lego gets better service from the flight attendants than she does!

Deb allots money from her monthly income to buy Lego’s food, take care of his veterinary costs and his bathing and clipping, which is done every two months by Jac Harbour, his original trainer and breeder. Deb drives a van for transportation for herself and Lego.

Now that Deb has Lego, she says people talk to her more often and treat her like a human being. Her life is much fuller now that Lego is here to share it with her.

Deb Willow’s story, like many others, is positive — a fairy “tail” come true! But it doesn’t always work out this way. For instance, there is the story of Tanner, the yellow lab.

Lori and Jeremy Rempel, like Deb, waited quite a while to get their dog — about two years. They, too, got him through Jacqueline Harbour at the Canine Vision School in Oakville.

Jeremy has an acquired brain injury as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Jeremy met Lori through his participation in the Paralympics — she was his coach. Eventually they fell in love and decided to get married.

Both Lori and Jeremy, who live in St. Catharines, Ontario, were doing quite a bit of travelling due to their involvement in sports. They decided that perhaps a special skills dog would be a good bet in assisting Jeremy by pulling his chair, pushing elevator buttons and light switches, opening doors and picking up things he had dropped.

They wanted a special skills dog for the same reasons as Deb Willows — to be a companion for Jeremy, providing him with protection and independence. They both love animals and felt a dog would give Jeremy some responsibility, something to look after, given that he was helped by so many other people.

They obtained Tanner, whose original companion had died.

At first, Jeremy and Lori devoted all their time to the training and care of the dog. It soon became apparent, however, that Jeremy was having trouble managing the basic care of Tanner, because of his difficulty with memory, related to his brain injury. Simple tasks like cleaning up after Tanner in the back yard were problematic. So Lori resolved to be the main caregiver for Tanner.

In addition, Tanner had not been trained to pull a wheelchair for his previous owner. Lori and Jeremy couldn’t seem to train him to do this. This was a major setback, since one of Jeremy’s needs was to have his chair pulled, especially for long distances.

However, the most significant issue was that Lori was three months pregnant when they finally got Tanner. As she describes it, what they probably really wanted all along was a baby, and Tanner was a substitute until the real thing came along. Lori felt that initially, because she transferred her desire for a baby to Tanner and gave him a lot of attention, he got used to this. And although he was very friendly, he was also excitable and got to be too much for them once the baby arrived.

Lori found that she just didn’t have time for both the baby and the dog, but she and Jeremy persisted with Tanner until the baby was one year of age. They then reluctantly made the decision to return him to Jacqueline Harbour.

Interestingly enough, when the Rempels had applied to get a service dog, the school had come to their home to try and talk them out of it. In this case, the family dynamics just didn’t work with a dog, and he was more trouble than he was therapeutic.

Family dynamics also play a role for Peter Zein, who had a C6-7 spinal cord injury 14 years ago. Peter also lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. He has an eight-and-a-half-year-old dog, Quasar, a white German shepherd, whom he obtained in 1990 from Service Dogs of Canada in Sarnia, Ontario.

Again, the same reasoning as Deb’s and Jeremy’s came into play as he decided to get a service dog. It seemed the perfect answer. He only waited about a year before getting Quasar, who had been with a previous owner and was trained very well.

However, Peter got married after applying to get the dog, and instead of the dog bonding to Peter, Quasar bonded to Peter’s wife, Marsha. Although the dog works well for Peter when it is just the two of them together, there are some difficulties when the three of them interact. Quasar is totally infatuated with Marsha and somewhat uncomfortable with Peter.

Peter believes in retrospect that he probably would have been better off without Quasar, who has become basically a pet in a family that now includes a baby.

In many ways, instead of the independence the dog should have provided Peter with, Quasar has become a burden. Peter finds cleaning up after him a problem and he feels he is actually more mobile without the dog. Peter propels himself, has his own van and does a lot of air travel.

Quasar has also become overly protective of Peter’s office, and the dog hair is a problem — he sheds a lot.

In fairness to Quasar, Peter feels that he is a good service dog when one-on-one with Peter. It’s other people that make it difficult. Peter finds he is always having to say “no” to stop people from petting or feeding Quasar when he is on his working lead.

Even though he and Marsha share the care of the dog, Peter doesn’t feel he has the time he thought he would for Quasar. And, particularly with the baby, they are keeping Quasar outside more often than they’d like to, because of his hair.

Peter has developed a sore shoulder from walking Quasar in his chair, and has to rely on others at work to help him with the dog on occasion — something he is not happy about.

Peter is still a strong advocate for dog guides, and wishes things had worked out differently for him and Quasar. He loves the dog a great deal, but recognizes that in his particular case, especially with a partner and family to share in his life, a special skills dog is not really necessary.

Now he actually feels guilty about the entire situation. He cannot return the dog to the original school because it is no longer in operation. Peter is considering finding a good pet home for Quasar, in fairness to the dog.

Peter believes that for an unmarried person like Deb Willows, a special skills dog can provide all kinds of benefits. He does not feel, however, that if a person is married or seriously involved with someone, a service dog will necessarily enhance the situation.

Peter was recently approached by a newly married couple who were seriously considering getting a special skills dog. The husband has a C5-6 spinal cord injury. They were wise, and carefully reviewed the pros and cons to owning a service dog.

They asked themselves questions like, what are the good and bad aspects to having this 24-hour companion, and all the responsibility that goes with it? Who will look after the dog’s needs? Are we ready for this?

What is the dog adding to the current situation? Is getting the dog, with all its responsibilities, defeating the purpose?

What significant tasks is this dog being considered for, and will they be accomplished?

What about lifestyle, including travel, and different weather conditions — is having a dog going to be problematic during cold weather, for example? Will the dog take away from our spontaneity?

Do we really want a special skills dog, or a pet… or do we want a dog at all?

After discussing the positive and negative aspects with Peter, they decided to put off applying for a dog. It didn’t suit them at this point in their lives. They had come to the same conclusion as Peter and the Rempels… only before it was too late.

If you are thinking about applying for a service dog, these personal stories might provide you with some guidelines in making that decision.

Just remember: Dog guides are animals, and have their own needs. Despite the independence they can provide, they are not independent themselves, and rely on us to feed, walk and play with them, groom them and take care of all their health-related needs. Not to mention that a dog, no matter how well trained, does have to relieve itself on a regular basis, and this in turn must be dealt with in a sanitary manner, whether on the street, in a park or in your own back yard.

So, as much as you might need service dogs to assist in daily tasks, they need us, too!

Don’t forget, too, that the application for a service dog of any kind does take a long time, with many steps. There is the application itself, followed by references, doctor’s certificates, videos and home visits from the service school’s personnel to assess whether you have the right environment for a service dog.

Then, of course, there is matching of the animal with its new owner, and the training period for the dog. These two partners must work together and develop a bond.

All in all, a lot of time can pass from when you first decide you want a service dog to when you actually get one. And a lot can change in your life during that time.

If you think you want a service dog, make sure you ask the right questions. Be clear and honest with yourself (and your partner), and don’t be afraid to change your mind before it’s too late. Only after this, can you get a “service dog” with a smile!


Although all dog guides are provided free of charge to their selected companions, they are not “free.” In fact, these dogs are extremely valuable. To properly breed, raise and train one of these animals can cost $5,000 to $10,000.

It is imperative, therefore, that these dogs be regarded as a cherished donation. Meticulous screening of each potential client is essential. This ensures a correct match and a long-term, beneficial relationship with the dog guide.

Here are some reasons to get a service dog:
– to reduce the number of hours and cost of paid assistance by a human (up to an estimated 72 per cent);
– to improve self-esteem, independence, community integration and personal control.

In addition, a service dog can…
– reduce blood pressure and increase survival rates after a heart attack;
– improve social contacts;
– improve psychological well-being;
– facilitate learning and communication;
– share a sense of humour;
– reduce incidence of minor health problems.

For your safety and benefit, make sure you are dealing with a reputable dog guide school. Both dogs and trainers should meet achievable standards that include healthy, safe, reliable and well-behaved dogs and trainers who are providing a dependable, enforceable system of accountability for their animals and services.

Certification is not required by law; however, this does not mean you have to be an unprotected, uninformed canine consumer.

Suggestions in evaluating schools and trainers:
– Ask to see the school’s/trainer’s business credentials.
– Interview them. What is the source of their dogs, and what guarantees are provided regarding the dog’s health, behaviour and ability to perform? What is their track record (number of dogs trained, placements, returned dogs)?
– Ask for references.
– What guarantees of confidentiality will there be?
– What background does the school/ trainer have to assess your specific needs successfully and adequately?
– Ask to see a sample contract. Get everything in writing.
– Find out who legally owns the dog and what extraneous costs you can expect in acquiring your service dog — related to travel, equipment, etc.
– How long will the training/acquisition process take? Are there follow-up training sessions?

Before obtaining your service dog, make a point of knowing and understanding all public health, safety, access and human rights standards and acts, and know your legal rights as they pertain to your service animal in the community.

If you are having difficulty with your service dog contract or any other related legal problem, such as public access, consult an attorney.

DON’T rush into anything.
GET everything in writing from the school/trainer.
YOU can always change your mind or say no.

(Susanne Pettit-Crossman is a broadcast journalist/freelance writer and former host of CBC’s “Disability Network.” She is a committed member of the Human Animal Bond Association of Canada (HABAC). For more information about HABAC, write to: P.O. Box 71012, Maplehurst P.O., Burlington, ON, L7T 4J8; leave a message at: (416) 410-2026; or e-mail:


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