Paws for Applause

5 mins read
Man with disability with his service dog using electric wheelchair.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s a special breed that walks among us on four legs — service dogs. These incredible canines are not only man’s best friend; they also provide people with needed independence and support.

In September, Mobility Service Dogs held a “Poodle Palooza” event at Pasadena’s Central Park to educate the community about the importance of service dogs and their handlers.

Founded in 2018, Mobility Service Dogs provides training from puppyhood until their service dogs are adopted by an owner.

Service dogs are not typical household pets. They are highly trained and specialized companions that provide invaluable assistance to people with disabilities. Their roles vary, from guiding the visually impaired, to alerting the hearing impaired and assisting those with mobility challenges.

These remarkable canines offer independence and support that transcend the bounds of human capability. They’re trained to perform tasks that make life more accessible and enjoyable for their human partners.

Although “service dog” is a term used by many to address all animals assisting an individual, it is important to understand that there are three specific terms for particular roles dogs are trained, or not, to carry out: “service dog,” “therapy dog,” and “emotional support animal.”

It is important to understand that there are three specific terms for particular roles dogs are trained, or not, to carry out: “service dog,” “therapy dog,” and “emotional support animal.”

Mobility Service Dogs focuses on supporting adults with mobility-based disabilities and their dogs strictly comply with ADA guidelines. These guidelines set requirements for what can be considered a service dog, namely that, “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

By contrast, therapy dogs are pets allowed in public facilities by invitation, and are usually found in places like hospitals or schools. It’s there they are able to give unconditional love to patients, from children to seniors. Generally therapy dogs serve multiple people, not just their owner.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) generally accompany an individual, typically the animal’s owner, who may need support coping with mental or emotional health challenges. It is important to note that an ESA does not have the same rights and access privileges reserved for fully trained service dogs.

For example, most public places cannot refuse a service dog access. However, ESAs are not permitted in public facilities like theaters and hospitals, with exceptions being commercial aircraft and rental units with a “no pets” policy. Even with these exceptions, proof of documentation that the animal is an ESA by a licensed care provider is typically required.

Unfortunately, there’s been an influx of family pets sporting official-looking vests acquired after their owners filled-out online questionnaires. By creating issues in public settings, these untrained animals lead to a range of problems for individuals who rely on trained service dogs.

Natalie, an attendee at Poodle Palooza, spoke about some of the obstacles she and her service dog Roxy have faced.

“I’ve definitely been denied at restaurants,” said Natalie. “I think there are some misconceptions about true service dogs, and people don’t understand that they are very well trained.” Natalie continued, “She does help me. If I drop something, I don’t want to ask strangers or staff to help. She has the ability to, so she is needed when I go out.”

Natalie with service poodle Roxy. Photo: Ashley Dowdy

Natalie went on to explain how ersatz service dogs have impacted her daily life. “A place I went said they don’t allow dogs, to which I explained that she’s a service dog,” said Natalie. “They told me the last time someone said they had a service dog, it bit someone. I apologized for their experience and tried to explain that my dog is not like that.”

“When people bring their untrained dogs and pass them off as a service dog it makes it harder for the rest of us.”

Service dogs, like humans, come in all shapes and sizes. And it’s good to remember that some service dog owners may be facing invisible challenges and are truly in need of their four-legged companions.

From Puppy to Worker

Some of the most important parts of service dog training involve socialization and exposure. People who require a service dog need to rely on their companion to be able to handle any environment with ease. Therefore these four-legged workers typically begin their service journey at two months old.

It is then that the dogs begin attending specialized training programs where they learn commands tailored to their owner’s specific needs. They master tasks like opening doors, retrieving items or even sensing when their owner’s blood sugar is too high or low.

Janie Heinrich, the founder of Mobility Service Dogs, said, “I hope people understand how valuable it is to walk next to a service dog and how, a lot of the time, we can leave behind walkers and crutches and be able to stand up.”

“The freedom it brings when you can walk out that door with your service dog,” said Heinrich, “opens up so much.”

Since 2018, Mobility Service Dogs has donated a total of 36 dogs to new owners who couldn’t otherwise afford them. However, all that specialized training comes at a price.

The harsh reality is a service dog typically costs $32,000. From the time they are a puppy, service dogs receive extensive training specific to their owner’s needs.

There are the veterinary costs, equipment and maintenance of the pooch. Janie explained how her organization is able to manage the costs with donations from the community, grants and sponsorships.

It was clear that practically everyone working at Poodle Palooza was a volunteer.

Unconditional Support

One of the incredible things service dogs can provide is their ability to show unwavering love and emotional support. They’re always there, ready with a wagging tail and a loving gaze, offering comfort and solace when needed most. Service dogs have a knack for turning a bad day into a bearable one.

It’s not just the dog that is with owners for support 24/7. Mobility Service Dogs prides themselves with providing support to both handler and service dog for as long as they need. The organization holds weekly meetings to ensure their client’s well-being as the owner’s daily needs change.

Not Your Everyday Pooch

Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes. There are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Poodles among the many breeds that excel at service work.

Each dog’s unique skills and personality traits are matched with their owner’s needs, creating a dynamic ready to conquer nearly any challenge.

Service dogs are the epitome of good behavior. They’re trained to be unobtrusive, not seeking attention or causing disruptions when they’re out and about. You won’t catch them barking in a movie theater or chasing after squirrels during an important meeting. They’re all business when on the job.

Partnership for Life

Service dogs and their owners share an unbreakable bond forged through trust and dependence. They’re more than just helpers; they’re family. Together, they navigate the world with grace, resilience, patience and love.

In a world that sometimes seems chaotic, service dogs remind us of the power of compassion, dedication, and the extraordinary impact one loyal friend can have on a person’s life.

One hope many service dog owners have for the community is a better understanding about service animals.

“Having a physical embodiment of my disability helps me not get questioned. Because my disability, for the most part, is invisible.” said service dog owner Isabelle. “My dog helps me to get the recognition I need.” She continues, “I hope the community recognizes and accepts that if it’s a properly trained service animal, the person really needs that dog.”

Here’s to to the unsung heroes making the world a better place, one wag at a time.

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Ashley Dowdy

Ashley is a correspondent for Local News Pasadena.
Email: [email protected]

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