Admittedly, I never knew there was a difference.
How could I?
Like so many things in life, we do not become knowledgeable until it becomes relevant.
I have seen service dogs around the community, and I knew that these dogs are working and not to be acknowledged or approached without consent.
I knew about therapy dogs, having enjoyed their company on countless occasions while my daughter inhabited a bed at the Children’s Hospital.
Had you asked me the difference among therapy, service, and comfort dogs – I would have been remiss to tell you the differences.
let me tell you about Owen.
About a year ago, my daughter began exhibiting outward signs of inner turmoil. Years and years of surgeries and hospital visits, procedures that went awry causing her to code on the table, as well as her mom almost dying at the very time she needed her most – well –
let’s just say kids are not nearly as resilient as we appease ourselves into believing.
They just do not have the maturity to even access the tools to deal with it.
Our daughter would shake uncontrollably merely en route to school – a school she had attended already for a couple of years. She would oftentimes vomit or cause her body to shut down and get sick.
She hated it.
I hated it.
She did not understand why it was happening, but it was and it began to permeate every aspect of our lives where my husband and I were worried we would never be able to leave the house.
She was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and we began the journey of seeking help for her, pulled her out of school to homeschool…
you get the idea.
But wait – aren’t service dogs specifically for kids with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy? Or like a guide dog for a person who is blind?
I had the same questions.
Here is the ADA (American Disability Act)’s definition of a service dog::
Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
I am grateful that the ADA voted to amend the definition of a service dog in 2011 to include kids like my daughter, Bella.
And to be honest –
I make absolutely NO APOLOGIES for the fact that we get the privilege of having a service dog even though, to many who observe my daughter and her Owen, he does not “appear” to be performing a task.
Recently, we were at a beautiful historic sight, visiting the lush grounds, admiring the gardens and the grandiose manor situated amidst it all.
Upon buying our tickets, the manager came up to us and asked us the following questions::
1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and
(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.
We answered both questions. In the case of the second question, our standard response is that Owen’s task is to respond to Bella’s medical needs.
The manager then repeated the second question two more times.
We answered the same response.
In her limited (and untrained) perspective, our response was not good enough.
Thankfully, another employee intervened and we were allowed to go about our outing.
My daughter, however, was pretty undone by the whole experience. It is important to know, as in any situation, our words carry weight. They make an impression.
Just yesterday, we were at dance lessons.
A woman asked my daughter if she could acknowledge Owen.
Bella responded, “yes”.
A woman in the room turned to me and said,
“I thought REAL service dogs were not allowed to be acknowledged when they are working!”
Here’s the deal. It is my daughter’s dog. He is there to serve her needs. If she would enjoy allowing a friend to pat her dog on the head, so be it.
Today we were told at the pediatric dentist office by an untrained nurse that Owen should not come to the office because he might bite the babies that crawl on the floor.
I wish I was exaggerating.
Owen has been trained by both a renowned dog trainer as well as the American Service Dog Association.
Owen, Bella, and I had to go through training in order to receive our certification as service dog and his handlers.
Owen is not perfect.
He is not a robot.
He is a beautiful angel who was put on this earth to bring comfort and empower a young girl who has been through more than most of us, and certainly not anything anyone would ever wish on a child.
Owen goes to the hospital with our daughter.
He lays his head in my daughter’s lap for every horrific blood draw she has endured. The blood has been flowing more freely since he came along. And our daughter has not passed out. The shaking has subsided.
Owen travels with us everywhere.
Now our daughter ventures into places and situations she could not remotely handle before physically or mentally.
She now loves to hike, and go to the movies, and even goes to school one day a week.
Owen absorbs one anxious thought after another, responding with cuddles and love, thus allowing my daughter more freedom to be all that she is meant to be.
If you should see a service dog, especially a child with a dog, and it is not apparent as to what possible service this dog might provide, here is my advice::
Don’t worry about it. Really. Let Owen take that from you, too.
Say a prayer of thanks that this human whose life has had trauma and heartache and disappointment has such a gift in his or her life.
Say something nice.
For every few people who have abused the system of service/therapy/comfort dogs (and yes – we are very frustrated with that s well), there are
for whom this dog has quite simply made all the difference
in the WORLD.