There’s no denying that for many of us, our pets hold a special place in our hearts. They’re our loyal companions, can make a bad day better, and love us just the way we are. The First Week of May is National Pet Week. In honor of this, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate some truly amazing animals that have a profound effect on the lives of their owners: service dogs.

Humans and dogs have had a special bond since the early days of our history. So, it’s no wonder we looked to them as a potential resource for people with disabilities who need some extra assistance. Whether it’s retrieving things for their owner, helping them get dressed, acting as their eyes, or alerting their owner of an oncoming seizure or drop in blood sugar, service dogs perform the necessary tasks that make their owners’ lives easier and give them more independence.

In 1929, we were introduced to the first official service dogs in this country – then called seeing eye dogs – who helped people who were blind navigate their surroundings. By the 1960s, people realized that service dogs had the potential to take on other tasks beyond guiding their owners around. By the 1970s, we had created a more formalized set of guidelines and methods for what service dogs could be used for and how to properly train them. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defined a service dog as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” Service dogs also became protected under the ADA, giving people with disabilities the right to take their service dog with them wherever they go.

Getting a service dog ready to serve their owner takes serious work. According to Aaron Backer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS), it takes their dogs around two years of intensive training before they can go home with their owner. WAGS dogs begin their training at 8 weeks old so that all they know is how to be a service dog. During the first two years, the puppies are trained by and live with volunteer trainers, who work closely with WAGS staff to ensure the animals have what it takes to be a service dog. The WAGS dogs will not only need to learn 50 to 60 commands, but also to prove that they are capable of being on-call at all times.

“You need a dog that wants to work,” says Aaron. “If you want them to work, you expect them to jump up and say ‘Yep, I’m ready to go!’ It doesn’t mean the dog should be doing something every second of every day. It means when you ask the dog to do something, they’re going to jump up and do it. That’s the kind of dog that enjoys being a service dog.”

Aaron and Ian                Aaron & Ian

After the puppies have completed their training with the volunteers, the new owners work with the WAGS Program and Training Director to match them with the right service dog. Owners then train with their dogs at the WAGS office in Madison, WI, over the course of several weekly visits before the dog is finally ready to be taken to its new home.

WAGS primarily provides dogs to people with physical disabilities, and they work exclusively with Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. These larger breeds tend to have a friendly temperament and are motivated to work, making them a particularly good fit for people with physical disabilities and limited mobility. Kinsley Tarr of Appleton, WI, was paired up with Teal, a Golden Lab who was trained by WAGS, in 2016. Teal helps Kinsley, who uses a power wheelchair, by giving Kinsley her paper and pens, helping her put on her jacket, closing doors for her, and carrying her wallet, among other tasks. The two have formed a deep bond, and Teal has become one of Kinsley’s best friends.

“Teal is very smart and fun to be with. Playful and energetic,” says Kinsley. “She’s always a lot of fun.”

Teal isn’t Kinsley’s first service dog. When Kinsley was in high school, she was paired with Hawk, and then after he retired, Kinsley had Shelby until she retired, too. All three of Kinsley’s dogs were trained at WAGS. Kinsley, who is enrolled in the TMG IRIS Consultant Agency, was able to use her IRIS funds to purchase Teal. IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) is a Wisconsin long-term care Medicaid waiver option that allows people with disabilities and those who are aging to self-direct their long-term care supports and services.

Kinsley & Teal 2                              Kinsley & Teal

Kinsley’s mom, Jane Tarr, says that having Teal and the other service dogs has led to a richer life for Kinsley. Not only does Kinsley have more independence since she doesn’t have to rely as much on caregivers, but having Teal has opened up Kinsley’s world.

“Before Kinsley got her first service dog, we found she was struggling with friendship. Having a service dog, it brings people to her and gave Kinsley her own presence in her social environment in school, and it helped her in the community,” says Jane. “The service dog helped Kinsley expand her outlet for communication with friends and family and people she doesn’t know.”

Taking service dogs out in public so that people with disabilities have more opportunities to be involved in their community is an important benefit of having a service dog.  Organizations like WAGS have a deep understanding of all the things that go into creating and maintaining a good service dog – knowing what breed will best fit the person’s needs, having professional trainers to help the volunteers train the puppies, and being available to the owners to help with any issues that may come up with the service dog down the road.

Emotional support animals are different than service dogs. Many people find great comfort and joy in their pets, which is wonderful and why we have pets in the first place. However, there is no certification needed to deem that a dog is an emotional support animal. There are ways, however, to tell if a dog is a properly trained service dog or is simply a pet, says Aaron. When service dogs are working, they will be perfectly behaved. Also, most service dogs will be wearing a vest with text indicating that people shouldn’t try to pet or distract them.

Kinsley’s mom Jane knows that properly trained service dogs do more than simply help people with disabilities go about their day-to-day lives. These dogs show the world that with a little extra help from their canine companions, people with disabilities can live more independent lives. They also give their owners the opportunity  to talk to curious strangers about what work their service dog does for them, and why it’s so important for people with disabilities to continue having the right to use their service dogs wherever they go.

“A service dog can be an ambassador for people with disabilities,” says Jane.

For those lucky enough to have a service dog, they find themselves richly rewarded. It’s no small undertaking to commit to having a service dog, and Jane says she’s so proud of all the hard work that Kinsley has put into training and caring for Teal. Kinsley, in turn, is grateful that Teal is there to help her whenever she needs, and that she’ll always be by Kinsley’s side. Kinsley and Teal have a deep, unconditional love for one another and an unbreakable bond.

“I think Kinsley and Teal are mirrors to each other,” says Jane. “They both have an internal spirit of happiness and they make each other fulfilled.”

Perhaps, though, Kinsley best sums up this special relationship:

“A person with a service dog has a heart that’s full!”

Article submitted by TMG Wisconsin