When you think of service dogs, you might picture highly-trained dogs raised from puppies to perform specialized tasks for people who are physically disabled. You might be surprised to learn that service dogs come in many shapes and sizes and provide a wide variety of services. You might be even more surprised to discover that training a service dog is often accomplished by pet parents just like you. Keep reading to discover whether your dog might have what it takes to become a qualified service dog — and whether you have what it takes to be a service dog trainer.
A New Best Friend
Joy and Billy Carr were still grieving the recent loss of their long-time furry companion, Bubba, when a new trial entered their lives: Billy required surgery to remove a brain tumor. Thankfully, the surgery went well, and upon Billy's release from the hospital, the couple knew the time had come to get a new dog. They visited an adoption event in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma that same day. Billy sat down to rest while his wife perused the available pups, and when she returned she found that Billy had already befriended a two-year-old shih tzu mix in a nearby kennel. "The dog was quiet and calm amidst all the chaos of people and barking and crying dogs," says Joy. "Billy asked to see the dog, and by the time I made my way back to him, [they] were already best friends. Sherman was the one. [He] was by Billy's side for the weeks Billy had to stay at home as part of his surgery recovery."
A Born Service Dog
Joy, then a librarian with Tulsa Public Schools, became involved with hosting a donation drive for the Tulsa SPCA in December 2014. During the drive, she learned about the Pets are Love (PAL) program, a volunteer program in which qualified therapy dogs pay visits to residents of assisted living facilities. As she learned about the program requirements, she knew Sherman would be an excellent fit. "Sherman is incredibly social," says Joy. "He loves to meet people! He's also very sensitive to our emotions; he always seems to come to our sides when we are sad or stressed. We thought it might be mutually beneficial for him to be some sort of therapy dog." So she set out to become a service dog trainer.
For the Carrs, training a service dog to serve as a therapy dog was less involved than might be expected. In order to become certified, Sherman first had to pass a "Good Citizen Test," which involved being approached by a group made up of both children and adults. A tester hidden in the group put Sherman through a series of tests designed to gauge his temperament and how he would react in stressful situations. These included pulling Sherman's tail, shouting, springing open an umbrella in front of him and tossing a soda can filled with pebbles in front of him. "It sounds like a brutal test," says Joy, "but it's absolutely necessary to know how the dogs will react [under stress] . . . Sherman did a great job!"
Life with a Service Dog
Sherman loves to meet the assisted living residents, and the feeling is mutual, according to Joy. "Many of them share with us stories about pets they've had in the past or that they had to leave behind when they came to the assisted living center." As for Sherman's parents, they love being able to brighten the lives of the residents while at the same time enriching the life of their own cherished pup. Even so, they're mindful of Sherman's needs and limits. "He loves seeing everyone, but like us humans, he reaches a point at which he is done for the day and needs a break."
While the Carrs intend to keep bringing Sherman on monthly visits to the assisted living centers, there might be an opportunity to expand his services in the future. A Youth Librarian at the Tulsa County Library, Joy believes Sherman might be a good match for a monthly reading event at her library that allows children to sit and read with a certified therapy dog. "I'd love to see that happen!" says Joy. "It would be great to be able to have him at work with me as well."
If you think your own pup might have what it takes to be a therapy dog, visit the American Kennel Club for a list of therapy dog certification organizations that can provide information on training a service dog.
Image Source: Joy and Billy Carr
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of fur babies.