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Let a Dog Help

therapy dog 2A good pet can make life so much happier and can provide a kind of therapy itself. We’ve all heard how dogs and pets can be good for your health and extend your life, so no need to rehash that. All I know is that getting my dog, Floyd, this year is one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. It’s so much less lonely at home all day, and the cuteness is overwhelming and never gets old. I’m simply obsessed with him.

He’s an amazing distraction when I feel terrible. He can sense it, then will insist on sitting in my lap and licking my hands and face and any tears that show up. One of the best things he’s done is to get me out to walk at least once a day. I’ve actually been able to work up to walking more than a mile on a regular basis, and that was not happening a year ago. That might sound like no biggie, but I have POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) so that’s a huge deal. He’s the embodiment of happiness, and who couldn’t use more of that? If you have a body that’s incessantly telling you it’s in pain or uncomfortable or just plain sick, a loving pet is a great way to break up the negativity.

Some cats are amazingly affectionate, but it’s got to be the right one. My cat, Daphne, is a gorgeous ragdoll rescue. According to her breed she’s supposed to love being held, but she howls when I pick her up and would rather just have a staring contest from the other side of the couch. Not exactly great for my psyche. She was perfect when I was working and wanted someone to come home tDaphne coucho at the end of the day, but life has changed. Now I really appreciate the interaction and love I get from Floyd. He’s changed my life for the better. If you haven’t already, consider adopting a loving pet into your family. And if you’re disabled maybe you could really benefit from having a service dog.

I’ve had so many people tell me that I should get my dog certified to be a service or therapy animal so I can take him everywhere with me, and that it’s as easy as finding a trainer or just getting some paperwork online. Well, I’ve done the research, and disappointingly that’s not how it works…

Therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, and service dogs are not the same thing here in the States.

A therapy dog

is trained to behave well so it can provide comfort and affection to strangers. They usually visit hospitals, assisted living homes, schools or other places with stressful situations. The dog’s handler is usually the pet owner, who has the dog as a personal pet. It’s a good Samaritan type of endeavor. You and your dog can take classes to get officially trained at your local humane society. It can take just a handful of hours.

An emotional support dog (or other animal)

provides comfort and support in forms of affection and companionship for someone suffering from a mental or emotional disability. An emotional support animal is not viewed as a pet under the law, and instead is labeled as a companion animal. They are not required to perform any specific tasks (like a service dog must), but they provide a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. If you suffer from panic attacks, anxiety or some other disabling mental condition, a medical professional may provide you a letter for your own dog. The letter is considered documentation and only needs to explain that you require the emotional support from the animal, and it does not need to disclose your particular condition or disability. My therapist wrote a letter declaring my own dog, Floyd, as an emotional support animal for me. The benefits are that emotional support dogs are exempt from pet rent, and “no pets allowed” rental restrictions under Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA or FHAct). It is generally considered reasonable accommodation for a landlord to allow an emotional support animal. Another commonly known (and perhaps overly exploited) benefit is flight cabin accommodation on air planes, given it’s able to fit within a given amount of space per safety regulations. Most airlines require that you notify and provide documentation for your emotional support animal a few days ahead of your flight.

A service dog

is not legally considered a pet. These dogs are amazingly well-behaved and attentive, and they may or may not be wearing a vest. They are trained to do work or tasks directly related to a person’s disability. The disability can be physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual. Commonly known service dogs are for the blind or deaf, but others can be trained to do amazing things like detect impending seizures and trigger an alert device to get help. People with POTS can have service dogs trained to help them with daily tasks that have become too difficult like retrieving and picking up things, helping pull them up stairs, and some can even alert patients before they faint.

Service dogs are legally defined in the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, their owner/handler has the right to bring them to all sorts of places a normal dog isn’t allowed like work or the movies. Also, because the law doesn’t view the dog as a pet, owners don’t get charged for standard pet fees at hotels and pet rent. (These are the privileges many people are after.)

Service dogs are not provided for comfort, emotional support, companionship or general well being- though they’ll surely provide all that while doing their jobs. These dogs typically undergo a rigorous 2 year training program by a certified trainer, and spend another year of training getting transitioned to the disabled person they’ll be serving. You can apply to get your dog into one of these programs, but prepare to give up your dog for a while and ultimately there’s a high chance your dog won’t be accepted, because they are screened strictly for service qualities.

A service dog for someone with POTS or MCAS can be trained to…

  • Alert you of an impending syncope episode and help you find safe place to lie down.
  • Alert you of triggers like smells. A dog can even inspect a room before you enter it, circumstances permitting.
  • Help pull you upstairs.
  • Pick up and retrieve items for you.
  • Provide stability when you’re walking or standing.
  • Call for help and reach 911 in emergencies.
  • And more!

Some service dogs may also be called a cardiac alert dog or a medical alert dog. 

Service Dog Trained for Mast Cell Disease

A terrier mix rescue dog named JJ was trained to alert when detecting smells (olfactory molecules) related to mast cell mediator release! JJ trained for 14 months to become a service animal using operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. “She was initially trained to detect hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia, she was then trained to respond to scent samples from the clothing the patient was wearing when she had a significant reaction. Once she was reliably alerting to these samples in training, she was exposed to samples provided by two other patients with mastocytosis, and she reliably alerted to those too. JJ alerted to sensing minor reactions by circling behavior and more serious reactions by barking and tugging at the caretaker’s clothing. Over the past 5 years, there were 3 known episodes where JJ failed to alert to a mild reaction, and all were during thunderstorms.” Read the full case study…


A warning…

There are a lot of websites and people selling “service vests” and fake certifications for dogs. The story behind that is, real service dogs and their disabled owners by law don’t need to provide proof that the animal is legit. For this reason it can be really easy for people to abuse the ADA rules defined by the Department of Justice:

“When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions:

(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and

(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.

Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”

This means that someone can just buy some official looking gear like a vest for their dog, and waltz into a restaurant or hotel. The staff aren’t legally allowed to ask more than those two questions, and the person doesn’t have to provide any proof that it’s an assistance dog or that they themselves are disabled. All someone has to do is lie, and most places won’t push the issue, because they’d rather not risk facing legal implications for discrimination. A dishonest person can’t carry on the charade for very long if the dog isn’t well-mannered. A business can force your dog to leave, service dog or not, if it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, if the dog displays vicious behavior towards other customers or guests, or if it defecates or urinates in an inappropriate place.

Also be weary of someone who claims they can train or certify your pet to be a legitimate service dog. Do your research. Given that businesses can’t ask for proof of your disability or documentation on your dog, it simply follows that if you get a talented trainer that can get your dog to behave and essentially perform as a legitimate service dog, then you can reap most of the privileges and rights thereof. You’ll have to have a compliant and trainable dog. As sweet and as smart as my dog is, I can’t imagine it’s possible to train him to control his bathroom and marking habits, let alone to train him to be attentive to me at all times out in public instead of inspecting the world of smells. It should also be known that falsely representing your dog as a service animal is punishable by law. In California it’s a misdemeanor that can be punishable with up to 6 months of jail time and a fine up to $1000 (California Civil Code Section 365.5, Section 54.1)

Read More

Assistance Dogs International is a great resource for questions about service dogs, and can direct you to a local organization where you can apply for an assistance dog of your own.

Department of Justice’s Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business

Department of Justice ADA Requirements for Service Animals

Pet Partners was recommended to me by the Humane Society as a place to find local resources for getting my own pet trained as a therapy animal.

Updated May 3rd, 2018

Published in Mental Health Treatment & Help


  1. Landon Chase Bruno Landon Chase Bruno

    This post was absolutely fantastic.

    • brandy brandy

      Thanks, Landon! ~Floyd approves this message.~

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