Service Dogs Can Change a Life

By James A. Caffry, Esq., and Richard A. Courtney, CELA

The relationship between canines and humans has been evolving for at least 14,000 years, and service dogs are a prime example of how we’ve benefited. Many people confuse the various types and roles of assistance dogs. According to Assistance Dogs International, Inc. (ADI), “assistance dog” is a generic term used for a guide, hearing or service dog specifically trained to do more than one task to mitigate the effects of an individual’s disability. A “therapy” dog, usually present to provide comfort or protection, does not qualify as a “service” dog. Although both therapy and service dogs make valuable contributions to the well-being of those with whom they interact and may undergo training, service dogs have a legally protected status through the Americans with Disabilities Act and can accompany their owners anywhere. We’d like to share our experiences with three very different dogs to give you an idea of how varied the services are that these animals can provide.

Madine is a service dog that spends her days alongside Melanie Courtney, an office assistant at Courtney Elder Law Associates. The 42 commands that Madine has mastered enable her to perform such tasks as opening drawers, picking up keys and turning on lights. Melanie is responsible for much of the dog’s care and, on command, Madine will step onto the foot plates of Melanie’s wheelchair in order to be groomed. Madine is also a bridge to the larger community. Individuals with disabilities often feel isolated, but when out and about, Melanie is frequently approached by strangers who strike up conversations about her beautiful dog.

Gus, who hangs out at the same law firm, is a therapy dog. Although his training was very different from Madine’s he, too, is certified, having passed “advanced obedience”, “distraction training” and “supervised visits.” Gus’ job is to make people feel good, and two nights each month he visits state hospitals and nursing homes to do what he does best. He’s insured by an organization called Love on a Leash, because facilities increasingly require formal reassurance that a dog’s temperament and training are appropriate for visits to vulnerable populations.

Louie, a one hundred pound black lab mutt, is a skilled companion dog. He is 11-year-old Duncan Caffry’s autism service dog. A “skilled companion dog” is a service dog trained to work with an individual with a disability under the guidance of a facilitator (typically a parent, spouse or caregiver). Unlike a guide dog or mobility service dog, a skilled companion dog is receiving his commands and praise from the facilitator, not the person with the disability. Louie and Duncan have been together for about five and a half years. For the first year and a half that Louie worked with Duncan, they spent the majority of their waking hours tethered together. Louie’s main job was to prevent Duncan from harming himself through self-injurious behavior and wandering off. Louie has been able to do much more for Duncan in their time together.

Service and therapy dogs can change a person’s life, but this is not a relationship to be undertaken lightly. Not all children react well to service dogs. Provider programs differ greatly in their approaches to matching dogs with owners and should be thoroughly researched. Service dogs will definitely add to the family’s workload, an additional responsibility in time-constrained households. The amount of time and effort it takes a school to accommodate a skilled companion dog should not be underestimated. Without the full support of the school district and the agencies working with the child, all the time, energy and training for the dog may go to waste. Also remember, there will always be a period of adjustment.

Madine is actually owned by Canine Companions for Independence, and there was no upfront charge for her. Duncan waited 18 months for Louie. The cost for Louie was about $15,000—including travel—to bring the dog to his current home in Vermont. Duncan’s parents spent a week of immersion training with the dog in Portland, Oregon, where he’d been raised and trained by Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA), before bringing him east. Louie then had a couple weeks to acclimate himself before a trainer from ASDA went to Vermont for two additional weeks of onsite work.

Service dogs are investments. Even if you don’t pay an initial fee, costs for their ongoing care must be considered. There are no health insurance policies or public benefits that cover these expenses, although they are tax-deductible. This makes service dogs perfect candidates for coverage by special needs trusts (SNTs).

We can’t imagine Melanie and Duncan without a dog in their lives. Depending upon your circumstances, adding a service dog to your family is an option well worth investigating.