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Health and Safety of Service Dogs: A Partnership in Care

Renee Le Verrier - December 11, 2017 03:59 PM

A service dog team is a partnership built on respect and connected by a unique bond. Taking care of our service dog is taking care of ourselves.

In my previous blog on the subject,I highlighted the tremendous help service dogs provide those affected by Parkinson's.

Like with any other animal – working or pet – that we take under our care, a service dog needs the same basics: food, shelter, exercise, grooming and veterinary services. Of course, they also need items such as collars, leashes, toys (working dogs get playtime, too!), beds, blankets and treats.

A service dog may require greater quantities of basic-level provisions than the family pet. Food and grooming are good examples. If a service dog’s job is to assist with balance or mobility as with a person with Parkinson’s, the dog is likely a larger breed. The bigger dogs eat more – my Great Dane consumes six cups of kibble daily.

Thankfully, my local shop loads the forty-pound bags into my car and my husband unloads at home. And with regard to grooming, because service dogs are permitted in such places as grocery stores and restaurants, I pay extra attention to making certain that my dog is clean and brushed before we leave the house.

For a service dog, there is whole other level of care. Keep in mind that these are working dogs with a job to do.

Here are a few areas to consider:

Work Uniform

A vest or other means of distinguishing the dog as a service dog (collar, tags, bandana) is not required by the ADA, though some states may (see xx). It is recommended, though, to identify your dog as a service animal with a vest, collar, bandana. It can help business owners readily see why a dog is in their establishments and can help keep passers-by from petting and thereby distracting the dog.

A balance or mobility dog needs a harness as well. They range from simple, woven straps with loops to sturdy leather with stainless steel buckles and handles.

Continuing Education

Many pet owners take their puppies to obedience classes. That’s akin to kindergarten. A service dog’s schooling is more like a graduate degree (with guide dogs earning the PhDs). Besides socialization, obeying  basic commands (on the first request!), the ability to remain in a calm down-stay and more require a great deal of training. Sometimes, reminder session are needed.

For example. I travel by airplane occasionally and when we board, my service dog backs into our row. Since it’s not something new do regularly, I’ll line up several chairs parallel to a wall, a few feet away. We practice for a few days before a flight.

For someone living with a degenerative condition, needs may change or increase. Most agencies will help with training new tasks.

Health Insurance

Expenses for a service dog – including food, supplies such as a harness. as well as vet costs – are tax-deductible. Still, emergencies happen and, in the literal sense, an insurance plan can help with paying the bills.

In a more figurative sense, there are other reasons for insuring your service dog’s health. Plan to introduce yourself to your local first-response team. If a service dog needs immediate attention, the disabled human partner may not be capable of getting the animal into a car – particularly if your dog is the size of a Great Dane -- and to the vet. That way, if a call to 9-1-1 is needed, there will already be information on file, relieving the stress and saving precious time not having to explain the situation while the emergency is occurring.

Another factor to consider in planning your dog’s health is not to allow other dogs to introduce themselves. No matter how many strangers announce their dog is friendly (usually as it’s approaching several feet before the human), it takes only one unfriendly dog to harm – sometimes permanently – your service dog. An injured service dog is not able to work and provide the daily tasks it took two years to master. Even the “friendly” pets who try to go nose-to-nose with a service dog could be ill (canine cough is a good example of an easily spread virus.) A sick service dog is not able to work and provide the daily tasks, either.

Retirement Plan

Caring for a service dog while working includes a plan for when they’re no longer able to work. Arthritis and hearing loss can creep in with age. Since the process for pairing with a service dog is lengthy, planning ahead by a year or two may be necessary. Also, where will the dog spend his retirement? Many agencies welcome retired dogs back if the handler is unable to care for him or her.

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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