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How A Service Dog Can Change a Life

Randy Pierce is an avid hiker, a presenter at events all across the nation (both in-person and virtually), the author of the 2018 book, ‘See You At The Summit: My Blind Journey from the Depths of Loss to the Heights of Achievement’, and featured in the Sports Emmy Award-nominated film ‘HBO Inside the NFL Fanlife: Randy Zip Pierce’. 

Randy, who began losing his vision in his 20’s due to neurological disease and became fully blind in his 30’s, can usually be found with his service dog. His most recent dog Autumn, who Randy describes as “much more than a service dog” and a “companion”, passed away last fall. He said, “having a service dog gives me the freedom of traveling and independent living.. They are efficient in getting me where I need to be. I could walk somewhere and it takes me a half-hour with a cane. With a dog, it would only take me seven minutes. They are also companions that are always by your side, and an icebreaker to help me start a conversation.” He said that in most cases, there is more than one way to complete a task and because of how intelligent dogs are, they can help Randy get somewhere or complete a task in a way that saves time and energy. 

Currently, Randy isn’t matched with a service dog because of the lack of travel due to the pandemic. He said using a cane works for now, but it is slower and much less effective. Randy explained that a dog would be able to notice a trash can on a sidewalk, or a chair in a room and be able to navigate it. Now, there is no animal to tell Randy when something is blocking the way of where he is going. 

He said there are misconceptions of having a service dog that are directed both at him and his dogs. “When I am traveling with a cane, people sometimes look at me with pity or even disgust. If they see me with a guide dog, they will react more warmly. When people see something different from the norm, they sometimes don’t know what to do,” Randy said. He also explained that sometimes people will feel the need to give the dog a treat, pet the dog, or even shout the dog’s name to get its attention. Randy said these actions could distract the dog (if a dog heard his name called just before a curb or a branch, it could put Randy in danger), or even confuse them (when working with a service dog, it is important to reward them for specific actions so they continue to do those actions, consistency is important). “Many well-intentioned people go out of their way to help but sometimes their actions aren’t helpful”. Randy said that a lack of education is why some people go about these situations wrong, it isn’t that they have bad intentions. “This is why advocacy is so important,” Randy said. 

Some families we support at our area agency utilize service animals. Prior to getting a service dog, Josh Szweda would experience frequent tantrums that were long-lasting. Now, the 23-year-old who has autism is much calmer because of his Labrador Retriever Mikey. “Mikey is Josh’s sidekick” his mom Patricia said. The purpose of Josh’s service dog is to help if he is triggered, and even avoid triggers if the dog feels they are in a situation that may make Josh anxious. Mikey also assists Josh to successfully navigate social settings. Patricia said, “the dog understands the concept of what the job is. They are so in-tune with each other and Mikey can help Josh whether they are at home or in the community.”

One barrier when it comes to having a service dog is the cost. Patricia noted that purchasing a dog who was already trained would have been costly so they opted to purchase a dog and train it to be a service dog in their own home with the help of a trainer. According to the National Service Animal Registry Company (NSARCO), a service dog may cost between $15,000-$30,000 upfront with some being as much as $50,000. It is estimated that owners spend anywhere from an additional $500 to $10,000 caring for their dog – purchasing food, veterinary checkups, toys, vaccinations, and more. Organizations such as Assistance Dog United Campaign, PETCO Foundation, and The Seeing Eye all give financial assistance and/or find service dogs at a lower cost. 

Another aspect of owning a service dog that some don’t realize is that there is a difference between a service dog and a support animal. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a service animal is a dog that has been individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. The tasks performed must be directly related to the person’s disability.” The National Network for Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act states that “while Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA.” While ADA does not cover emotional support animals, federal laws such as the Fair Housing Act do. Also, Emotional Support Animals can be any animal whereas Service Animals are only recognized as dogs. Service animals and search-and-rescue dogs are protected in New Hampshire under RSA-167. You can learn more about RSA-167 HERE.

Understanding the many ways a service animal (and emotional support animal) can help someone is important. Mobility assistance, allergy detection, guidance, diabetic alert, seizure alert, audio alert, and help for those who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and other needs are all ways people utilize these animals. 

Beverly Ketel’s son John uses a diabetic service dog. She said the dog can alert nearby people if John experiences symptoms of low blood sugar. Symptoms include sweating, shaking, or confusion. At very low levels, one could experience a seizure. Stowe, who is a yellow Labrador Retriever can give a quiet alert such as hand-licking, or a loud alert, which is barking. Beverly said Stowe is a “true medic dog” that is “trained in everything.’. She recalled a time when she was giving a presentation with her son and the dog, and the dog became focused and alert but Beverly was not sure why. “It turned out that a minute later, someone in the audience had a seizure. The person had never had one before”. Having a service dog gives the whole family a “peace of mind” according to Beverly. 

Jeff Dickinson, Advocacy Director at Granite State Independent Living (GSIL) experiences Muscular Dystrophy. He said his service dog Aspen helps him both physically and emotionally. Aspen opens doors, picks up items, and uses light switches. Jeff said he got his Aspen from Assistance Canine Training Services (ACTS), an organization in North Conway that works to train dogs to become service dogs. You can learn more HERE.

One organization some look to when thinking about having their dog trained is Gilford’s Golden Guardians in Gilford, NH. “Our animals are individually trained, using demonstrations and consultations, and taught to perform tasks and alert(s) as a response to a handler’s confirmed diagnosis,” according to their website. Founder Kaarla Weston trains dogs to be medical alert animals, autism service animals, and emotional support animals. The organization’s mission is “to provide consultation and 1:1 coaching to handlers while training their service animals. Our program is fast-paced, community-based, and ensures a powerful, effective bond between handler and pup. We teach pups to become confident dogs that can think on their feet and provide the appropriate support for each individual. Our goal is to meet the unique needs of every individual so that they feel a combination of joy, companionship, and increased ability. Our dogs instinctively facilitate communication and reduce anxiety for people who love animals.We are steadfast in our belief that service animals play a valuable role in health and wellness.” Kaarla said, “we implement a bonding program designed to empower even younger handlers to command their service animal. We use a combination of clicker, hands free, and elements of kohler’s method of dog training to teach alerts and tasks.” You can learn more about Gilford’s Golden Guardians HERE

If you are interested in learning more about service dogs – check out the Netflix documentary ‘Pick Of The Litter’ that features five puppies that will potentially become service dogs.

A service dog can change someone’s life – or the lives of an entire family. No matter the needs one has, a service dog will help their owner navigate life as the owner gives their dog a loving home. Whether they are assisting physically or emotionally, service dogs prove each day that they truly are one of the best friends you can ever have. 

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