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Service Dogs Aid Increased Independence in Carees

Renee Le Verrier - August 09, 2017 11:00 AM

Yoga has helped my balance and strength while living with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Several years ago, I felt I needed additional support. I used a cane for a short while, but soon traded it in for a Great Dane. My four-legged assistant provides me with better stability and allows for greater independence. He also has far more personality.

A service dog can be one of a variety of breeds – the size, strength, type of working dog and the animal’s temperament all factor into matching a dog with a person’s needs. While guide dogs undergo training to assist the vision impaired and medical alert dogs address the needs of those with diabetes or seizure disorders, the dogs that specialize in mobility and balance can ease the everyday movement challenges for someone with Parkinson’s.

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as a dog individually trained to provide work or tasks for a person with a disability. ‘Individually trained’ does not mean ‘worked one-on-one with a trainer.’ It means a person’s individual needs form the basis of the tasks the dog learns to provide. Just as each individual with PD carries a unique set of symptoms, each service dog assists in a different way, helping with the little things that make a big difference.

When using other assistive devices such as a wheelchair or walker, service dogs can do jobs that can otherwise sap energy from the disabled person. These include:

•    Retrieve items such as keys
•    Open doors
•    Turn on lights
•    Press buttons (for example, elevator, electronics)

 When walking unassisted, a service dog can perform tasks that can help maintain balance
•    Steady on uneven ground
•    Stabilize gait
•    Propel from a “freeze”
•    Brace for weight shifting such as when rising from a chair

Above all, a service dog opens the door (sometimes literally) to increased independence.

The fear of falling can trap us inside and the fear of being a burden by having to rely on others– spouse, family, friends – keeps us there. With my service dog beside me, I know that even if I get “stuck” or my meds wane and it’s difficult to move, I’ve got an assistant ready to help.
My service dog takes care of my needs and, in turn, I take care of his.  Service dogs need exercise, feeding, grooming and vet care. While the costs of each are tax-deductible, there still needs to be time and energy set aside for each. I compare it to having a date and a toddler rolled into one – my time with him is special, but I also need to be prepared for when he poops and drools.

Other aspects of having a service dog include:

•    Training: ongoing training is necessary both as reinforcements and as needs change.
•    Disability: a service dog – particularly an extra large one – is a bit like wearing a sandwich sign that says, “He’s with a disabled person.” While it would be an ideal world if they didn’t attract unwanted attention, the reality is, they do. Anyone shy might want to reconsider.
•    Commitment: A service dog team is together 24/7, wherever you go, there you both are. Getting ready to go out means getting the dog ready, too: Harness, food and water needs, poop bags, not to mention car size and accommodations (the back of my station wagon is dedicated to my dog). Also, since the dog is trained for a specific person, they’re partnered for life. (Some agencies will take the dog back for retirement if the person cannot care for both a new service dog and a retired one.)
•    Cost for a service dog varies as some agencies donate to recipients, some have a minimum donation amount and others charge a fee.

For more information on agencies, the application process, and life with a service dog, please visit my blog at as well as Assistance Dogs International at

Renee Le Verrier is a certified yoga instructor who teaching has included classes at Massachusetts General Hospital's Parkinson's Partner Center, Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital's Neurology Day Program and a Parkinson’s Teacher Training Program. Renee specializes in creating adaptations and modifications for people living with movement disorders. Diagnosed with Parkinson's a decade ago and having survived a childhood stroke, Renee practices yoga to decrease rigidity and fatigue in body as well as increase flexibility and balance in body and in spirit. She is the author of the book Yoga for Movement Disorders and its Companion DVD. You can find more information about her work at LIM Yoga.

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