Over the years, I have never ceased to be amazed by the self-less dedication I have witnessed from volunteer puppyraisers. These individuals open their homes and hearts to a bundle of furry joy and puppy breath. They work tirelessly to mold, train, and potty-train the puppies. And, just when the puppies become young adults, the puppyraisers pack them up and send them off into the world to advanced training where they will hopefully become a service dog or some other type of working dog.
Many people cry, “how can you put so much into a dog, care for it so deeply and then just give it away?” I say, "thank goodness" there are people in this world who can make such a sacrifice. People who can put their heart and soul into a dog and then let it go so unselfishly in order for people like me to be more independent. It is an act of love and support that is hard to comprehend.
These individuals love and support their puppies by giving them all of the confidence, self-assurance and education that they can. They also give to others by providing us with a loyal, dedicated animal that never leaves our side. Through their selflessness, they have enabled us to live our lives in ways that we could have only dreamed.
I don’t know how to respond to those who ask, “how can someone say good-bye to their young dogs in the prime of their lives?” All I can say is "thank you" for enabling me and other individuals with disabilities to say hello to life’s possibilities, hello to adventure, and hello to hope.
I guess that every puppyraiser knows that because of his and her dedication and hard work, they are sending this trained, young adult dog into the world. They are not saying good-bye to their beloved dog, but they are saying “go forward, take the love and confidence I have instilled in you and share it with others so that they may know love and self-confidence too.”
Most service dogs come with the basic equipment that they will need to do their jobs such as a backpack, harness, identification patch, etc. Every service dog agency is different and each agency has a different set of tools and equipment that they provide to each recipient. When I got my first service dog, she came with a backpack that included an identification patch, two bowls, a toothbrush, a nail clipper, and some other assorted items. It reminded me of the items a new mother would receive in a hospital welcome basket.
However, as time goes on and your relationship evolves with your service dog, the need may arise for additional items. For example, my first service dog’s backpack had pockets on each side. The pack was bulky and we would get stuck sometimes going through tight spaces. I looked around for alternative backpacks and was thrilled to find several providers that could accommodate our specific needs.
Over the years, I have turned to such providers as www.wolfpacks.com, www.petjoyonline.com, and www.twotuttlesfourpaws.com for service dog equipment and accessories. With the internet, service dog team members can find quality equipment that goes beyond the welcome basket of items that they receive when they are first placed with their dog.
As the service and working dog industry grows, service dog recipients will have more volume and higher quality options for their service dog equipment and supply needs. Their dogs can find all types of gadgets and devices that can provide for easier travel, grooming, healthier treats, easier public access, and for an overall higher quality of life and care.
As a person with a disability, getting a service dog and becoming a member of a service dog team changed my life in ways I never imagined. But as I look back at my experiences, I have to stop and reflect on what it must have been like for my husband to live in a home with a service dog team. How did it change his life?
When I was considering getting a service dog, I immediately discussed it with my husband, Franz. I wanted to make sure he supported my decision. It was strange at first because Franz and I are very close and I was bringing another being into our home. And this was a being that would be by my side 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When I brought my first service dog, Ramona, home, I was amazed at how respectful Franz was from the very beginning. He never tried to distract her from her job and yet, he was always there to assist me with her care and well-being whenever necessary.
During our first year together, I sometimes questioned my decision to get a service dog. Franz constantly reassured me that I had to have to a service dog. It was not a question of “should I have a service dog” but “how could I not have a service dog and live the kind of independent life that I wanted.” He was the silent partner of our working dog team, the unsung hero.
I admire partners and family members who support their loved ones who receive a service dog both emotionally and sometimes physically with assistance in daily care and maintenance. Franz says that my service dogs not only provided me with independence and devotion but they also gave him more freedom and security that I could be more independent and self-reliant. He says his job is to offer unconditional support to our working dog team. I guess you could say that my service dogs changed both of our lives in ways that we never could have imagined.
Currently, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I have two service dogs. One is my 11-year-old retired dog, Morgan and the other is my current 4-year-old service dog, Whistle.
Whistle is my third service dog and I have to say it was quite a different process transitioning from Morgan to Whistle than it was from my first service dog, Ramona to Morgan. Ramona had to be retired abruptly because she was ill. Morgan, on the other hand, declined much more gradually. I think I can confidently say that Morgan was not interested in retirement. He was perfectly content staying at home as a working dog and felt sure that I should be content staying at home also. It was difficult to help him to understand that I could not stay home all the time. I had to go to work everyday, but it was okay for him to stay home.
When Whistle came into our home, I think Morgan believed he was a foster dog who was only crashing with us for a while. He didn’t understand nor appreciate me working with Whistle and developing a rapport with him. Transitioning to Whistle was definitely one of the hardest things I have done since becoming a member of a service dog team. The hardest, of course, was saying good-bye to Ramona when she suddenly passed away.
The second hardest thing was looking at Morgan’s face when he would rush to complete the tasks that Whistle was now doing for me. Morgan and I were one. We knew each other so well and transferring that trust from him to Whistle was difficult. It still is. Morgan was so loyal to me and Whistle sometimes has a wandering eye. He’s definitely my service dog, but I don’t always see the adoration in Whistle’s eyes that consistently sparkled from Morgan’s eyes. Morgan has aged rapidly in the last year and I know I made the right decision to retire him and transition to Whistle. Whistle has become such a strong, mature service dog but when I look at Morgan, I can still see that twinkle of pride in his eyes that says "I am and will always be your devoted service dog."
As a wheelchair user, you would think it would be pretty obvious when someone sees me with my dog that they would realize he is a service dog and not a pet. It is amazing to me the number of people who question my right to have a dog accompany me in public. Why do you have a dog? What does he do for you? These are the common questions that I hear over and over.
And, I always have to chuckle because it never fails when I wear sun glasses, someone asks if I am blind, and compliments me on my ability to successfully navigate my wheelchair with such ease. I have to explain that no, I am not blind and in fact, my dog is a service dog, not a guide dog. Meaning, he is trained to assist someone with mobility limitations like myself.
Recently, I was interviewing Isaiah Schaffer on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio.com, an Iraqi war veteran who has a service dog, Meghan. Meghan helps Isaiah with the post traumatic stress disorder that he developed after serving three tours of duty of Iraq. I asked Isaiah how public access was for him and Meghan. He said it was even more an issue for him because at first glance, he looks "normal." That is, his disability is not visible. He said he has been stopped many times by store or restaurant owners and questioned about Meghan’s authenticity as a working dog.
For the most part, the general public only recognizes working dogs as guide dogs for people who are blind. But as many of us know, there are a growing number of dogs that are providing a variety of assistance to many people with disabilities such as hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, etc. The general public should be more aware of working dogs. People with disabilities have a right to have an animal assist them to be more independent and the general public has the right to expect us to be responsible dog handlers.