Service dogs receive as much as two years of training, learning to do hundreds of tasks for their handlers, including retrieving keys. The most popular breeds are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and crosses of the two breeds.
Man’s best friend serves as the eyes, ears, arms and legs of its handler
When she was in her 30s, Nancy Sawhney began having serious difficulty walking. Enduring seemingly endless medical tests and uncertain diagnoses for nearly a decade, the California woman struggled to use crutches, a cane and, at one point, a wheelchair.
Doctors declared she suffered from “unspecified neuron disease”—a condition that would gradually deteriorate. The diagnosis changed her life forever.
So did an information booth about assistance animals at the California State Fair in the early 1990s—and Josephine, a lab/retriever mix she called Jodi, which gave Nancy the chance for regained independence.
“That was the first time that I realized I could get a service dog to help me, and it just opened up my world,” Nancy says. “Until then, I never considered it a possibility. Now I don’t know what I would do without my canine partner.”
In the past 22 years, Nancy has had three more service dogs, including her latest, Battier, who has been with her since early this year.
“In just this short a time, Battier’s been more than I could ever have wished for,” Nancy says. “She anticipates my every need. She’s simply amazing.”
Nancy is one of many people whose lives are richer because they rely on their service dogs to be their eyes, ears, arms and legs. Organizations such as Guide Dogs of America and Canine Companions for Independence specialize in training service dogs.
By law, a service animal is a canine—or, in some cases, a miniature horse—that has been trained to assist people with seeing, hearing, or other physiological or mental challenges. Service dogs undergo extensive training to assist their human partners.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits a person with a service dog from being denied access to a public place.
“There are big differences in service dogs and therapy dogs,” says Martha Johnson with Canine Companions for Independence, which is headquartered in northern California and serves eight western states. “Service dogs are working animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for their human partners that the handlers cannot do on their own.”
Dogs and humans have a long, intertwined history.
“Dogs have always lived among humans to the benefit of both species, and they co-evolved together over thousands of years,” says Melissa Faye Greene, author of the just-released “The Underdogs: Children, Dogs and the Power of Unconditional Love,” which explores the relationships of humans and canines. “There’s an ancient biological link, and science is proving that happy hormones are released by dogs like they are in humans.”
Twenty-first century studies have shown that when a dog and a person sit next to each other, their hearts begin to beat in sync, Melissa says.
“The whole miracle of cross-species friendship is amazing,” she says.
Canine Companions has a breeding program with golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, producing full-blooded dogs and crossed breeds.
“These animals, because of their size and their personalities, are the most receptive to training and very adaptable,” says Nancy, who serves on the national board of directors for Canine Companions. “You can just see in their eyes how eager they are to please people. And even with their size, they are very loving and affectionate.”
From the time they are born, service animals are groomed for a life of service. They spend the first 14 to 16 months in the homes of trained volunteers to become socialized, learn basic commands and how to be calm in a wide range of situations.
Eric Peterson has been a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for nearly 14 years.
“The puppies come to us at about 8 weeks old, and it’s always so incredible to see how eager they are to learn, with their little tails wagging,” Eric says. “From the very day he arrives, he’s right there with me all the time, going to work, the grocery store, the airport, to the mall and movies, to family events and other activities.”
The pup wears a bright-colored vest identifying him as a service dog in training.
“This is one of the most fun parts because people come up to us, pet him and love on him,” Eric says. “It’s a perfect introduction to educate people about the amazing partnership between these dogs and their future handlers, plus it helps the dog become accustomed to being out in public.”
Eric’s latest charge is Artemis, a retriever/lab mix.
At nearly 1 year old, the dog has mastered nearly 30 commands, accompanied the family to restaurants, shopping and on vacations. He has learned to have his teeth brushed regularly and his toenails trimmed without wiggling, and to stay focused on the task at hand.
“From the very beginning, we’ve worked with Artemis by cradling him in our arms, turning him over on his back, rubbing his stomach and playing with his paws so that he’s comfortable, submissive and non-aggressive,” Eric says. “You’ll never see a service dog engage with another animal, even if it’s a larger dog that comes up to sniff it. He’s trained to lie down and to stay focused on his handler’s needs. Alpha dogs are not suitable as service dogs.”
Artemis has become a member of the Peterson family, at first wiggling, licking and nuzzling his way into their hearts, much like any family pet. But Eric knows the day is coming for the pup to move on to his next phase at a training facility.
“It’s one of the hardest things to deliver him to the training campus after all the time he’s spent with us,” Eric says. “It’s like a child leaving home for college, but by the time he is around 18 months old, he’s ready.
“We won’t see him again until his ‘doggie college’ is complete and he’s been matched with a handler, but he will remember us. I’ve seen it happen with every puppy we raised. At graduation, even though he hasn’t seen us in six months, his ears will perk up when he hears my voice, but he’ll mind his handler until she releases him. Then he’s all over us.”
At Canine Companion’s regional training facility, Artemis and dogs like him receive as much as six months of specialized training with a professional. He learns to respond to specific commands, such as “drink,” which signals him to fetch a bottle of water for his handler, and “light,” which prompts him to turn on a light switch.
Depending on the dog’s temperament and strengths, he may become a hearing dog or a service animal to assist a wheelchair-bound person.
Professionals constantly evaluate the dog’s abilities to make sure he will be able to perform his duties consistently for the six to eight years of his working life.
“Realistically, some wash out during puppy training, or ‘doggie college,’ as I call their time at the training campus,” Eric says. “If a dog doesn’t make the grade as a service animal, he is either trained as a therapy dog or adopted out to one of the many able-bodied people who are screened to be pet owners. As well-behaved and loveable as these dogs are, it’s very easy to match them with a suitable family.”
Handler candidates patiently wait for a call.
“Sometimes, the wait can be as long as two to three years to find the right dog for the right person,” says Nancy. “Once the dog is ready, candidates are brought in to meet their potential teammates and spend two weeks on one-on-one training with a professional to solidify their relationship and suitability.”
Graduation day is emotional as puppy raisers and their families return to see the dogs and their new handlers before they go to their new homes.
For Eric, it is bittersweet.
“I’m so proud of the puppies we’ve raised that go on to make a difference in someone’s life,” he says. “I always tear up as I see them leave for their new lives, but I know that’s what they’re trained for, and I’m just proud for the small part I played in it.”
Many organizations provide service dogs at no charge, although the financial and time investment can be several thousand dollars and months of volunteer time to raise the puppies. Once matched, handlers agree to pay for all food and medical care for the canine partner while in their care.
When the dog retires—usually at age 9 or 10—the handler has the option to keep the dog as a pet. If the handler turns the dog back to Canine Companions, the puppy raiser is offered the chance to adopt him. Otherwise, the dog becomes a pet for one of the approved people on the organization’s waiting list.
Nancy and her husband, Ramesh, opted to keep her second dog, Union, once he retired from service.
“He lived with us, even after I received my next dog, Becky,” she says, noting the two dogs became fast friends. “Union was a true blessing to our family, and we were happy to have him for the rest of his days. He was such a part of our family and our lives.”
Nancy credits Jodi with literally saving her life, even though she was with Nancy just a year.
“She was a great dog, but maybe a little too smart for the program, so she was returned to her puppy raisers to live a pampered life,” Nancy says of Jodi. “But if it had not been for Jodi and the wonderful dogs that came after her, I’m not sure what my life would be today.”