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Becoming a Service Dog Handler: Is A Service Dog Right For Me?

I’d never considered the possibility that a service dog could help me until the day I flipped on the TV and saw a woman — a mom like myself — who also had a similar mobility disability. She was being interviewed for a news story and sitting there beside her was a gorgeous yellow Labrador Service Dog. At that moment, something in my mind clicked and I wondered if a dog like that could help me, too.

Jasper Up close head

There are many ways of mitigating a disability, from medical equipment to therapy, and everything in between.  For me, living with chronic pain and limited range of motion in my hips is something I’ve always had to deal with.  I think living with a chronic disability can become so ‘normal’ that it’s easy to forget there might be things out there that can help.

But wait a minute…a service dog?  I wasn’t blind, or in a wheelchair.  Would anyone give me a dog like that?  How disabled do you have to be to legitimately require the help of a highly trained dog?  Would people question why I need one? Was a Service Dog right for me? I started doing some research and discovered that service dogs weren’t only for those who couldn’t see or walk. In fact, Service Dogs can be used for many different types of disabilities.

I soon realized that if I was serious about this idea, I’d have to make a decision. I could either apply for a dog from an organization that trained dogs for just such a purpose, or I could acquire a suitable puppy and take on the training myself.

From my own research I saw there were pros and cons to both options.  On one hand, a program trained dog would be completely trained and ready to go, but, the waiting lists were long and, with many, the costs were very high, with no guarantee I would ever be matched to a dog.  Self-training a dog would guarantee I’d have a dog, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to adequately train a dog myself.  Also, what if the dog washed out? I’m not sure I was emotionally prepared for that. I contacted a few Service Dog teams that I found through blogs and message boards, and, while the owner trained dogs were amazing, I realized I just didn’t have the physical stamina to take on such highly specialized training.  For me, a program trained dog was the right option.

Researching all the programs was very time consuming; there are many across the country, but none exactly like another.  I needed a dog that could be trained in mobility work, so I thought about my life and pinpointed things a dog could help me with.  I approached the research with the idea that the Service Dog tasks that would be most helpful for me and my disability were retrieval, brace and balance work, as well as some unique things like the ability to gently tug a sock off my foot. The research was exciting, but a little scary too.  My disability is largely ‘invisible’ with the only outward sign being a slight limp. My excitement was tempered by the anxiety that some people would think I was just lazy, or not ‘disabled enough’ to warrant the support of a Service Dog.  However, I knew that, ultimately, what everyone else thought didn’t matter.  So I persisted, spending countless hours researching training programs all across the United States.

Once I identified some programs that trained dogs for the tasks that I needed, I started contacting  the organizations to find out what their application processes were like.  I was dismayed at first, because many of the programs that I thought looked perfect for me had waiting lists of two years or even longer.  Still, I knew that being patient was a virtue that would definitely pay off, so I began to narrow the list of programs down.

One of the organizations I found was called Paws in Prison, and was located in Arkansas, just a couple of hours away from where I lived in Southwest Missouri.  Paws in Prison was one of the last programs I’d stumbled upon, and I really loved the fact that inmates were used as handlers for the dogs, and that the dogs actually lived in the prison environment.  I was told by one of the contacts from the organization that I’d probably have quite a long wait before they’d be able to train a dog specifically for me, but I really liked the concept and I decided to go ahead and apply.

Much to my surprise, a few short weeks after sending my application to Paws in Prison, I received an email from one of their professional trainers, Marsha Tonkinson.

Jasper Full Body

“We have a black lab in the program that I think would suit you well,” she wrote. “His name is Jasper, and he is going to be an awesome dog.  Would you be interested in being matched with him?”

Pictures were shared over emails, and I asked about a million questions, before it was decided:  Jasper, the black Lab in the prison, was going to be mine.  This series of articles will chronicle our journey as we begin the process of becoming a team.  Next time, we’ll take a look at Paws In Prison and discover how it’s not only saving dogs from shelters, but also transforming human lives.

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Comments

  • Rebecca & Reese September 20, 2013

    Emily, my name is Rebecca. I am self training. My service puppy’s name is Reese. I just got him a few weeks ago, but I started on my path more then a year ago, when I discovered Psychiatric Service Dogs. Some of your initial concerns sound familiar. When I started on my journey, I was filled with concerns. Am I disabled enough? Am I faking it, having convinced myself I’m ill? I went back & forth in my mind until I put my foot down. After considering my symptoms (several times), I decided that I needed to admit that I am indeed handicapped & stop arguing with myself. That a SD is probably the best decision I could make in my own recovery & that I WOULD NOT continue arguing with myself, & I haven’t. I am very happy with the decision I made. My new struggle is wondering if we’ll ever make it as a team. But my pup is only 3 months. We’re just getting started with training. I need to recognize that & not allow self doubt or doubt in my partner to take route. It is a great learning process. Good luck in your path!

  • Rebecca & Reese September 20, 2013

    How do I follow her blog?

    • Service Dog September 20, 2013

      Hi Rebecca, you may enter your email address in the “Subscribe” box above or follow us on Facebook or Twitter (those links are at the top of the page).

    • cindy September 29, 2013

      Rebecca & Reese how can I follow your blog? Very interested.

  • Shari Hanna September 22, 2013

    Love it. I live the same type of life with my SD Rhea.

  • Marsha Tonkinson September 22, 2013

    It’s great working with Emily and the inmate trainers and seeing how jasper had grown from a dog that would jump 6ft in the air barking to working as a service dog in training for Emily we have laughs while working with the clown. But he does enjoy it. I can’t say how proud we are of these guys and the work they have done.

  • Chandler Coyne October 20, 2013

    Where’d you get that harness?

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