Service dogs are trained to provide specific tasks for their handlers, and sometimes these tasks can mean the difference between life and death.
qathet region resident Tiffany Thomas picked up her new service dog in June 2021 and was alerted to a potentially life-threatening situation the very next day. Thomas suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a life-threatening shellfish allergy.
Her dog, Cricket, is trained to help Thomas with both of these issues. She is trained for scent detection and can alert Thomas to even minute traces of contaminants. However, Thomas first looked into getting a service dog for help with her PTSD symptoms.
“I’ve been able to take some of my life back,” said Thomas, when asked about the impact of having a service dog. “And as my time with Cricket went up, my meds went down.”
Cricket, a two-and-a-half year old goldendoodle, began her training with PTSD in mind. She has been trained to sense when Thomas is getting anxious or becoming less grounded. Cricket will press her body into Thomas’s leg or lick her hand to help interrupt the anxious moment. Cricket will also wake Thomas up if she is having a nightmare in the night.
Cricket is still a service dog in training (SDIT). Thomas is on a waitlist to do her final tests with Cricket at the Justice Institute of BC, however, she has been through rigorous testing at Vancouver Island K9 Consulting (VIK9) near Victoria. SDITs have the same rights as fully certified service dogs.
Tyson King, CEO and lead trainer at VIK9, said 90 to 95 per cent of service dogs are used for invisible disabilities. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to questions around a person’s need for their service dog.
Thomas said she has heard people say they wish they could have a service dog, but she wishes she didn’t need one.
Service dogs are different from emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and companion dogs. Service dogs are the only ones protected under human rights legislation and can accompany their handler to any place open to the public.
Emotional support dogs can be a lifeline for many people, but they are not trained for specific tasks or tested the way service dogs are and do not have the same allowances as service dogs for accompanying their handlers.
Therapy dogs can be quite remarkable in their abilities to comfort people, often in group settings, but are also not protected under human rights legislation.
Service dogs are considered medical equipment and a person would need referrals from medical doctors or specialists before getting one. Beyond that, handlers still have to invest many, many months of training, often years, and tens of thousands of dollars.
King said the minimum cost for training a service dog is $25,000, but depending on the variety of tasks, costs can reach $60,000 or more, for example when training guide dogs to lead blind or visually impaired individuals.
Cricket trained for two years with VIK9, and Thomas went back and forth from Powell River to Vancouver Island to attend training sessions with her. Thomas continues to work with Cricket for at least two hours a day to keep her skills sharp.
To be qualified as a service dog, the dog needs to be trained through an accredited training facility or trained and then tested at the Justice Institute of BC. However, King cautioned that the justice institute test is really just about obedience and making sure the dog is safe for the public. The trainer and handler will need to test and assess the dog to make sure tasks the dog has been trained for can be completed reliably for the safety of the handler.
Unfortunately, there have been some instances where the validity of a service dog has been questioned. Some well-behaved dogs may be able to pass as a service dog just by wearing a vest, which can easily be purchased online.
In most situations, it is inappropriate to ask someone what they need their service dog for since this may reveal personal medical information. Many proper handlers may have certification evidence with them, but they are not required by law to produce this if asked. However, if someone had a concern around the behaviour of a service dog, they can ask the handler to leave the area until the dog has calmed down or return without the dog, as long as the person’s rights are not infringed upon.
“Service dogs should be seen and not heard,” said King. “The best compliment is when people remark that they didn’t even realize the dog was there.”
However, even the most well-trained service dog can possibly have a bad day.
King and Thomas both emphasized the importance of ignoring service dogs. Even staring at them can be enough to distract them from their jobs, which could potentially put their handler at extreme risk. Being touched or distracted in any way may mean the dog misses vital cues that alert them to medical events such as an oncoming seizure, anxiety attack or drop in blood sugar.
Thomas explained that Cricket is a sensitive dog. This sensitivity is what allows her to do well at her tasks, but it also means she is sensitive to her surroundings. Thomas worries that the wrong interaction with someone in the public will cause Cricket to become traumatized and not be able to work any more.
The value of service dogs to their handlers is immeasurable and both King and Thomas are advocates of further education of the public and for national standards for service dog training and recognition.