Their use is growing. They help guide the blind, perform tasks for the physically disabled and may even help people with epilepsy and autism.
One moment 15-year-old Glen Gregos was a happy-go-lucky kid riding a motorcycle. The next he was the lucky-to-be-alive victim of a terrible accident, paralyzed from the chest down. Now 54 and a resident of Woodland Hills, Gregos has built a rewarding life — college, marriage, a successful banking career, a daughter who just graduated from college. Still, for decades after the accident, Gregos faced challenges every day from simple things most of us take for granted — going to the grocery store, going out the front door. And then six years ago, his life took another dramatic turn. He met Beulah — a.k.a. Miss Bo — a black Labrador retriever who has been at his side, 24/7, ever since — to open doors, carry bags, pull his wheelchair, pick up anything he drops on the floor and cheer up any black mood he falls into.
"It’s hard to put into words everything these dogs do for you," he says. "It’s physical. It’s emotional. It’s all-encompassing. You probably have to live it to understand it." Miss Bo is not considered a pet. She’s a service dog, a concept first introduced with guide (or seeing-eye) dogs for the blind, perhaps as far back as the 16th century, though it wasn’t until 1929 that the first guide dog training school in the U.S. opened up. By the 1970s, people had started training dogs to help with other disabilities, and that trend has continued. Service dogs now include dogs that can open cupboards and drawers, alert someone to a ringing telephone, assist someone during a disorienting seizure, help someone keep their balance or get back up after a fall, not to mention dogs that can sniff allergens in the air or low blood sugar on someone’s breath.
"Here in the U.S. we have a highly individualistic culture — creative, experimental," says Lynette Hart, director of the Centre for Animals in Society at UC Davis. "It’s like a caldron for coming up with new things that dogs can do for us. And dogs love to work. It’s a very natural marriage for them to help people." This has been a boon for many who, like Gregos, have had their lives changed by some extraordinary dogs. But potential pitfalls abound. "There’s almost no regulation," Hart says. "And everyone wants to do what they want to do." Sometimes people want to call their dogs service dogs even though they’re really not. And sometimes people want to believe dogs can do things even though there’s no real proof they can.
Many dogs have a natural knack for providing comfort, companionship and emotional support to their people, who often consider that a pretty big service. But it doesn’t make those dogs service dogs. Neither does a capacity for warding off crime by looking or sounding formidable. According to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and new regulations put in place in March, a service dog must be trained to perform a service for a person with a disability that is directly related to the person’s disability — turning lights on and off for someone who’s paralyzed, for example, or alerting someone who’s deaf that a smoke alarm is blaring. Many organizations train one or more kinds of service dogs, and in general their programs follow a pattern set by the early guide dog training organizations: careful breeding followed by puppy-raising by volunteers who begin the basics of obedience and socialization, and finally intensive training by professionals. (Potential human recipients also are carefully screened, trained and matched to dogs.)
Guide Dogs for the Blind, the first guide dog training school on the West Coast, relies solely on Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two. Training organizations for other types of service dogs often do too. "They have wonderful temperaments," says Katie Malatino, public relations coordinator for one such organization, Canine Companions for Independence, headquartered in Santa Rosa. "They’re a good size for the tasks they have to do, and they have an instinct to retrieve, which comes in handy for picking things up off the floor." Canine Companions for Independence provided Miss Bo to Gregos in November 2005. These days she is always on call if Gregos needs her, which is not to say that she never has any fun. "She has toys," he says. "We play ball. But once she gets vested up" — wearing the vest that identifies her as a service dog — "she knows, ‘OK, I’m ready to work.’ " (And people who see the vest should should know and respect that too.)
Like any good service dog, when she’s working, Miss Bo is unperturbed by loud or unexpected noises ("bomb proof," Malatino calls it) and undistracted by other animals or people — unless Gregos gives her special dispensation. Which he often does. "I put her in a ‘sit’ and let people pet her," he says. "I want to create more awareness about these special dogs. I wasn’t aware of them myself for a long time. I’d think, ‘What can a dog do for a guy in a wheelchair?’ " The Americans With Disabilities Act says service dogs get to go wherever their people go: grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, amusement parks, boats, buses, trains, planes and no-pets-allowed hotels. New regulations issued this spring establish two exceptions (which would surely never apply to Miss Bo): Service dogs can be banished if they get out of control or if they transact certain business indoors that should have been seen to outside.
Not everyone knows the rules. Gregos once spent several hours convincing officials at a hotel with a no-pets policy that they were obligated to let Miss Bo in. "One side of me thought, ‘I don’t want to stay here anyway,’" he says. "But the other part thought, ‘They’ve got to be educated.’ " Even beyond the issue of ignorance, service dog use is not without controversy. One problem is cheaters. "A lot of people try to skirt the system," Gregos says. "I see it all the time." Some will claim that their pet dogs are service dogs that help them with disabilities they don’t really have — and they can get away with that, because the law doesn’t require people to present proof of their own disability or their dog’s capacity to deal with it. (It doesn’t help that service dog vests are readily available online.) Proprietors may deny entrance to dogs that arouse their scepticism, and that’s fine if they’re right. If they’re wrong, it can lead to a fine of a very different kind.
Another problem is that there are no industry-wide standards for trainers or dogs, leaving disabled people on their own to determine how much they should trust an organization’s claims. "Guide Dogs for the Blind — they’re very reputable," says Dr. Melissa Bain, chief of the Behaviour Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "If they graduate a dog, OK, I trust it." But not every organization has the same long history of success. Of course, some claims are easier to validate than others. It’s easy to see if a dog can pull a wheelchair or open a refrigerator door. But seizure prediction? "The trouble," Bain adds, "is if people rely on the dog and nothing else, that could be dangerous." Sometimes the question isn’t whether a particular dog can perform a task but whether some tasks are even canine-ly possible. Take seizure detection again. "Is that legitimate?" Bain says. "Maybe."
In 1999, a British epilepsy specialist and a behavioural scientist/animal trainer reported that by giving dogs a reward every time their owners had seizures, they had been able to train some dogs to warn of oncoming seizures as much as 15 to 45 minutes before the seizures occurred. Their paper in the journal Seizure inspired a demand for such dogs. Today, the Epilepsy Foundation says on its website, "while some people have been very pleased with their new canine friends, others have been disappointed." The foundation "recommends that people take great care in reviewing trainer claims and results, especially when thousands of dollars are involved." More questions arose in 2007 when four of the seven seizure-alert dogs in a study in the journal Neurology were found to be warning people of psychological, not epileptic, seizures. Psychological seizures, caused by mental stress, can often be eliminated through counselling — without drugs — making warnings beside the point. And in one case in that study, a dog’s "warning behaviours" were found to set the seizures off.
Service dogs for children with autism have inspired a debate all their own, with some districts reluctant to allow the dogs into their schools because, they argue, the dogs cause too much trouble — other children may be scared or allergic; child and dog may require extra supervision. But, in fact, the value of service dogs to children with autism is less controversial than it is for seizures. "One of the main things our dogs do is provide safety," says Kati Rule-Witco, executive director and placement specialist for Autism Service Dogs of America, a training organization founded in 2002 that’s based in Lake Oswego, Ore. "Often children with autism will run off. Parents have trouble just going to the grocery store. Our dogs provide a way for families to go out safely." A 2008 study in the journal Qualitative Health Research looked at what happened when service dogs were brought into 10 families with children with autism and found that they did, indeed, enhance safety and facilitate public outings. When the child and dog go out into the community together, the dog is tethered to the child but also connected to the adult caregiver since that’s who holds the dog’s leash. Autism service dogs are also trained to keep their cool no matter what their young charges do (hug, squeeze, lie on top of the dog) and to take positive steps to cope with negative behaviour (nudge or lean against the child, maybe even stop the child from hurting himself).
All of this costs money, a lot of it. That’s true for training any service dog. Some organizations — like Guide Dogs for the Blind and Canine Companions — can operate on donations alone. But not all. Autism Service Dogs of America says the average cost for breeding, raising, training and placing one of their dogs is $20,000, $13,500 of which families are required to pay before they are placed on the waiting list for the next available dog. The website for Autism Service Dogs of America has testimonials from 10 satisfied families who use words like "awesome" and "miracle" to describe their dogs and the jobs they do. They firmly believe that their money was well spent. But not everyone is convinced.
Bain notes that research so far has not compared service dogs to ordinary family dogs, and she suggests the latter might do just about as well. "Maybe a child feels better sitting next to the dog," she says. "There’s no way to tell if special training does any good." Gregos has no such questions about the good that Miss Bo’s special training has done for him. But she’ll be 8 in August, and the time is coming when she’ll need to retire and he’ll need to get a new service dog. Then Miss Bo will change from service dog to pet dog and spend the rest of her days with the man who says that having her has been "magical since Day One."