As I write this article, my family is grieving over the fact we had to say goodbye to a long-time family member. She served my son well for about 15 years. I know my son would not have been who is he today without, in part, her service to our family.
As I comforted my son, I realized that many families who have children with challenges may not even think of the benefits of having a service animal. I want to share a bit of our experience and give some of the wonderful benefits of these special creatures.
We adopted Dina when she was to be put down because of having an abusive owner. To me, that sounds a bit off, but she was to be removed from the home and destroyed because she was being abused. She was the sweetest dog. Over the many years we had her in our home, the only time she became aggressive was if she perceived a threat to my son.
There are many reasons for a service animal. Some service animals act as the well-known guide dogs used by the blind. Some are hearing dogs. Some are seizure alert dogs. Some dogs even alert diabetics to low blood sugar. Then there are the emotional support animals.
Emotional support animals tend to get a bad rap today because many will use the label to have a pet when pets are not allowed. This is not a true emotional support animal. A service dog (SD) of this type will instinctively provide support when the owner is feeling depressed, anxious, confused, or even frustrated. They will lean on the child, offering unconditional support. Sometimes they will lick and snuggle. The main characteristic here is the emotional bond felt between dog and owner. The dog will help the child calm down and become settled emotionally.
SDs offer unconditional love, a listening ear, and even a coat to absorb tears as they fall. There is never any criticism or judgment. Our children with challenges need that at times. Oftentimes, they cannot express what they are feeling. With the dog, just hugging him/her will provide an emotional outlet. The SD will never tell the secrets whispered in their ear by a distraught child.
Another benefit of service animals is that they provide a good lesson in responsibility. Learning to care for an animal depending on you is a great life lesson. You cannot shirk the duties of feeding, watering, walking, and even cleaning up dog poop. When frustrated about something, my son would walk miles with his faithful companion.
As the dog aged, there were other lessons to learn. There was patience as the dog was unable to put in the miles she did as a youthful pup. There was sacrifice learned as the owner had to deal with sickness, loss of hearing and balance, and even the increasing number of accidents in the home. Then there is the final lesson of all when you have to say goodbye to a faithful companion, and learning to grieve. As my son cried over his companion’s death, he was reciting Ecclesiastes about “a time to be born and a time to die.”
Outside of the many benefits of having a service animal, there is other important information that a parent may need to know before taking on the responsibility of an SD. Service animals are not pets. They are actually considered assistive medical devices. Because of this, any expense in their care is tax deductible over a certain percentage of income. They are allowed in rentals that do not allow pets if the owner has at least four rentals, or if it is managed by a rental agency. It is illegal not to rent to someone due to a service animal, or even to charge a pet deposit. If someone has been denied due to an SD, they should contact their state’s Department of Justice. The landlord can require a letter from a professional regarding the need of the animal. There does not need to be any mention of the particular disability/challenge that requires the use of the animal. Your local Disability Action Center can give you more information regarding your state laws.
Although many emotional support animals are used only at home, they are allowed to go out in the public with their owner. This can be of great benefit to some children who may have issues with meltdowns when in certain situations. Although a vest is not legally required, it often makes things easier for the business establishment and the other customers. Again, service cannot be denied due to a service animal, even in restaurants. And again, the reason for the animal doesn’t need to be disclosed. Service animals are not usually allowed to be petted by other people when out in public. This can distract them from their job. Some do allow petting. It is always important to ask each owner before making overtures to the animal. The only time a business owner can have the owner take the animal out is when the animal is misbehaving. Please be sure your animal is public ready before venturing out with him.
Service animals can travel on public transportation without cost. The agency does need to know about the animal beforehand. They cannot deny you service. They may try to require documentation, but this is not legal. Again, the animal must be on their best behavior. If there is any barking or biting, there can be trouble.
Another important point that many are confused about is that SDs do not need to be professionally trained. Some types, like guide dogs for the blind, do need special training. However, other types do not. In fact, SDs for seizures or diabetes demonstrate a more instinctive act. A dog cannot be trained to recognize seizures or diabetes, or even to emotionally support a person. A parent will need to use their best judgment in regard to whether the animal could become the support the child needs. The temperament needs to be calm also, so that if taken into the public arena, there is no chance of barking and biting. Basic obedience lessons are needed also. There is a website called Mr. Paws (www.mrpaws.com) that gives a lot of information. They also offer excellent training books if you need to train a dog to provide more of a type of service rather than only emotional support. This site also has templates for IDs which make taking an SD out in public easier. They also sell vests.
Even though my heart hurts at this time as we grieve Dina’s death, it is also filled with thanksgiving over the blessing this dog brought to our life. She lived a long, happy life. She helped my son cope with many challenges of his youth. She will be missed. We rescued her, but she ended up rescuing us. I hope, if needed, your family can find the special blessing your child needs.