Monday, July 18, 2011

Article on Service Dogs from the Sun Sentinel With my Comment

July 18, 2011
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.
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 Center 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 skepticism, and that's fine if they're right. If they're wrong, it can lead to a fine of a very different kind.

Comments--jgruskin at 8:44 PM July 18, 2011 

Finally, the world is awakening and offering service dogs some respect.  Thank you for your article.
We are working on a research project to demonstrate the effects of service dogs on the quality of life of MS patients.  We intend to prove with both qualitative and quantitative research methods that service dogs not only improve lives but contribute to a reduction in medical costs.
We began this project in January of this year, put up a website, established ourselves on Facebook, and have been extremely gratified with the quantity and quality of the responses. Our next step is to obtain funding for our research.
Through our work, which we intend to expand to include additional neurological diseases, we will finally convince both patients and providers that service dogs are the answer to a multitude of problems. You would be amazed at what these dogs can accomplish.
If you are interested in learning more about service dogs, check out our website and visit us on Facebook at MS Beyond Meds. We really look forward to changing the way the world views and reacts to these unbelievable animals.

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