I’m an animal person. I’ve been around pets and wild animals for most of my life. I know how to care for and interact with them. It’s all very natural for me. That being said, I haven’t had my own critter for a very long time. With a busy life, moving around, and travelling frequently, it would have been unfair to keep a pet.
Getting ill provided me with something I had rarely experienced, location stability. I was in one place with the singular responsibility of getting better. It wasn’t an ideal setup and my heart ached for independence, but I knew that it was the perfect opportunity to integrate a dog into my life. I would finally be able to create a place for my dog to have routine and adequate attention.
Knowing that my body was facing new limits and challenges, I thought it would be best to get a service dog. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I struggled with that decision. Deeply. I felt undeserving, not broken enough, like an imposter, guilty, selfish, etc. It took me five years from the onset of my condition to begin the process of finding a high-quality service dog foundation. Once I discovered the right group, I went through the invasive process of applying. I sent medical records. There were notes from doctors. I asked friends to write lengthy reference letters. My family was interviewed. My house was examined. I submitted essays, answered questions, and went through three separate interviews.
Nothing about the process was easy or accessible. But, I figured it was worth it. These people took their job seriously and cared about the welfare and right fit for their dogs. There were releases and contracts to sign. Purchasing specific goods for the dog and having a joint veterinarian. It was an expensive, time consuming, and fully exhausting experience.
Rigorous training standards aren’t something I take lightly. If I was going to maintain the work capabilities of a highly intelligent pup, I was happy to put myself through the wringer. Once the qualifications were met and a service dog was assigned based on my needs, I began the intensive training process. I spent 6-8 hours a day working with my dog, other students, and the trainers. There were specific commands, reward systems, and techniques to be learned, but I enjoyed it. After passing all the courses and tests, I was finally able to take my new companion home!
Something I didn’t know going in: A service dog is never yours. The dog belongs to the foundation in perpetuity. They require journaling about how you are keeping your dog up-to-date with training. They can drop by anytime to check on the dog and assess your qualities as a service dog owner. The dog has to be groomed, exercised, and socialized within their parameters. At any point they can take the dog back and it must be surrendered to them if there are any problems. They dictate how the dog lives its life with you.
Here’s where it all went wrong. My medical issues are largely invisible. Very few friends who spend time with me even notice my maladies. This makes it very difficult for people to accept and comprehend my condition. The foundation I worked with had never placed a service dog with a physically mobile client. They told me many times over how strange it was to not be working with a wheelchair. In fact, they placed me with the group of trainers who were getting dogs as handlers, not owners. The other people in my class were training to take dogs to their places of work hospitals, courtrooms, and schools. I didn’t mind the odd mix, as it gave me insight into that side of the service dog world.
These dogs are bred specifically to be service animals. Each one goes through numerous tests and training, starting at 6 weeks old, to see if it will be a happy and effective worker. Most puppies fail out. The ones who make it, move on to the intensive training program. From there, they either wash out or get placed. It’s this level of dog – passed as a puppy, but would have washed out after the intensive, who was placed with me. His name was Wesley.
Wesley was very smart and sweet. We bonded immediately. I was told that he was a service dog, but had some mannerisms that made him less useful to other clients on their waitlist. This didn’t bother me at the time. I thought a service dog was a service dog. The foundation knew my medical history and challenges. They put a lot of thought into placing each dog. Once I took Wesley home, the challenges began.
He was a puller on walks. A 100-pound puller. My hands couldn’t grip that strongly. My body couldn’t keep him in place. He was also a jumper when he was excited. At first, I thought that I was doing something wrong. That my handling skills weren’t up to par. After all, he was great in the very restrictive training facility. But, Wesley would also be too much to handle for family members. He was only 2 years old, so some puppy energy was expected. I made an extra effort to have him walked and ran multiple times a day. That was another part of the problem. The entire point of getting a service dog was so I would not have to destroy myself with unsustainable physical activity. He was suppose to be attentive to my needs and help with tasks. Everything about our relationship should have been uplifting and helpful for us both.
When I brought up the issue with the foundation, they immediately blamed me and asked if I could get a wheelchair for walks. They wanted me, a person who had just accepted her new physical restraints, to put myself in a chair when I didn’t need one! Frustrated by being NOT broken enough, I asked if I could use a motorized bike instead. They said that it wouldn’t be heavy enough to withstand the intensity of his pulling. I tried everything… wearing his leash around my waist, walking as fast as possible, avoiding high traffic areas, having stronger people walk him, using a muzzle harness… nothing worked. He was a strong-headed dog who loved to explore people and other animals. He needed far more energy expenditure than I could provide. It was at this point that I wrote a long email to the president of the foundation expressing my frustration and asking for her help. We had become fairly close during the training and I figured she would provide a great solution. Instead, I got reamed.
She told me that Wesley was never a true service dog and that it was my fault that I wouldn’t use a wheelchair. She went on to tell me all the reasons I was wrong for expecting a dog who would meet service dog standards when I was mobile. It was a nasty and angry response. I forwarded it to my closest contact at the foundation, and she was stunned. She apologized for the letter and asked to sit down and talk about my issues. We had a meeting. I was in tears for most of it. I loved Wesley and had hoped he would be my forever dog. It was three months in and he was a part of my family. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that he was not the right dog for me. He wasn’t an actual service dog, nor would he be mine to the point that I could train him outside of their rules.
A few days later, she came to pick him up. I was an emotional mess. Wesley was happy and didn’t know much of what was happening. He was going to be staying with his former trainer, who he dearly loved. I probably cried harder over that darn dog than most of my lost loves. The foundation owner called me a few days later to sort things out (I never answered) and they offered to place another dog with me. But, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t go through all that again. I, especially, didn’t want to work with a group who would shame me for not being broken in ways that they could understand. It was an awful experience.
These days, I don’t have the need for a service dog. My life is setup in a way that maintains my independence. I just wanted to share what happened here because I don’t often come across stories about the inner workings of the service dog process. It’s not all roses and happy video clips. The utter disregard and discrimination towards people with invisible diseases and medical issues permeates every facet of society.