Service dogs, most people probably think, are for blind people. And maybe for someone who uses a wheelchair. Not so much for those who appear hale and hearty. We don’t realize what a dog could do for someone with an invisible disability such as seizures or diabetes. Or for someone like me – someone with a psychiatric disability who would eventually find my service dog so indispensable that I took him everywhere – even to Target.
I have ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), TRD (treatment-resistant depression) and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). Because of this alphabet soup of mental illness, I also have panic attacks. An overwhelming sense of doom drops down. My heart races; my breathing hitches. I shake. The attacks often don’t end until I down a Klonopin, a heavy benzodiazepine about two steps up from Xanax.
Panic attacks in public are the scariest. As I sweat and shake for no apparent reason, I feel unsafe. I look In Need of Assistance or like That Person You Should Avoid. It would be very convenient to know a panic attack is coming, so I could down some meds and remove myself and my three small children from public view.
Then I found another way. After reading up on service dogs, I thought how nice it would be to have one – one who would warn me when a panic attack was about to happen, one who might even get my medication from my purse. My doctor thought it was a splendid idea. We were in the process of getting a German shepherd puppy anyway, so the timing seemed perfect.
I could arrange for my own service dog pretty easily because there’s no nationwide governing body for such animals. When I looked up what I had to do to get a puppy certified, I was astounded: There is no certification. The Foundation for Service Dog Support, a nonprofit, trains golden retrievers, sells vests and certificates, and teaches people how to train their own service dogs. They say a service dog should obey commands 90 percent of the time, not steal food and ignore other dogs. But those standards have no legal standing.
The Americans With Disabilities Act stipulates that to be deemed a service dog, the animal must be trained to perform a helpful task, but the law also states that it’s illegal for anyone to require that the dog demonstrate that ability. So, for example, no one can make me show that Queequeg snorfs my hand when my breathing changes, alerting me to a panic attack. Legally, they just have to take me at my word that he does it.
Basically, you can just slap a vest on a canine, stick a “service dog” patch on it and gin up an identification card at any number of online paper mills. These cards often reference the ADA and look authoritative enough to make naysayers back off.
This makes the service-dog designation ripe for abuse by people taking their pets into no-pets-allowed public places or bringing them on airline flights for free. Brian Skewis, executive officer of the California State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, told the Detroit Free Press that many of the service dogs he sees in airports are used fraudulently.
“Everyone agrees there’s a problem, but there’s no clear-cut solution,” he says.
Colorado has passed a law making it illegal to misrepresent an untrained dog as a service animal, according to the Gazette of Colorado Springs. Penalties include $25 for a first offense, as much as $200 for a second offense and up to $500 for a third.
Queequeg, named after both the dog on “The X-Files” and the harpooner in “Moby-Dick,” was a tiny ball of German shepherd fuzz the first time my husband and I saw him. We picked him because he was cuddly and brought him home when he was about 9 weeks old. He had become relatively huge by about 4 months and would continue to grow until his head hit my waist and he weighed a lanky 100 pounds.
How to train a service dog
I began training him myself. That’s legal, according to Service Dog Central, a website offering information about service dogs. I knew how to train the basics of obedience: sit-stay-come, walk nicely on a leash. Queequeg picked them up quickly – all but “stay,” which we’re still working on. We took him everywhere and corrected him when he pulled.
It’s been more difficult to train him to recognize that I’m about to have a panic attack. When one is imminent, my breathing speeds up. So I used that as a signal for him to tell me that I was about to panic. To train him to recognize it, I found his favorite treat – bread – and put it in my fist. I would make myself breathe faster in these training sessions. After lots of repetitions, Queequeg learned to hit my right hand with his snout when my breathing changed.
Because Queequeg does a specific job, he’s considered a service dog. (That’s different from an emotional support animal, which aids a person through companionship alone. The Fair Housing Act requires waiving no-pet rules for emotional support animals.) So Queequeg wouldn’t just hang out and calm me down, like the late Carrie Fisher’s dog, Gary. In addition to the panic-attack hand bonk, we’re teaching him to fetch my Klonopin and sit in my lap, providing the deep pressure that helps me calm down while waiting for the medication to work.
The first time I took Queequeg out, his official-looking vest hadn’t come yet, but I had a blaze-orange coat that fit him. So, with many misgivings, we trotted off to Target. I thought it would make a good first outing: It’s generally quiet, and we needed to go there anyway. I worried they wouldn’t let me in. I worried that he would poop in the aisle. I worried that people would mob him. But mostly I worried that they’d stop me at the door.
I learned something that day. If you walk into a place with an animal and act as if the two of you are supposed to be there, everyone accepts it. Target could have barred us: Service dogs in training, unlike regular service animals, can’t automatically go everywhere – and it’s up to the animal’s owner to decide when the service dog “graduates” because, again, there’s no formal certification. But by and large, everyone is supportive of the need to train service dogs. Even when they get tired and have to ride in the cart, as Queequeg did on that first Target trip.
In fact, in almost a year, Queequeg has been banned from only one place: a home-school meetup regularly held on church grounds. The authority figure who banned him – Queequeg did nothing but lie on the floor of the nursery while toddlers milled around him – was obviously afraid of dogs, especially large German shepherds. She was very nice about it. But she clearly thought Q would snap and eat one of the children.
Which he wouldn’t, of course.
The vest arrives
After that first trip to Target, Queequeg’s official “In Training” vest arrived, and he went everywhere with us. I hauled him, and three children, to Chick-fil-A, to the South Carolina State Museum, to shops and stores and restaurants. We’ve so far avoided the grocery store as too distracting. When we’re home, we encourage the kids to climb on him, lie on him and generally mess with him, so he has learned to tolerate small children. He jogs with me, both for company and as an emotional crutch; even a pepper-spray bracelet doesn’t allay my fears of being alone the way Queequeg does.
We take Queequeg everywhere in his vest. This helps when he makes rookie mistakes, like the time he pooped in the Target makeup section. I carry cleaning supplies now, just in case: Even six months later, the shame of that doesn’t go away.
We’re still perfecting the hand bonk, then we’ll move onto retrieving my meds. It could take him another year to learn his job and become a good canine citizen. He’s still overly interested in other dogs. He also has trouble staying for more than 10 seconds at a time. But Queequeg is only just over a year old. There’s a lot of puppy left in him; he has to be crated at night or he’ll eat the couches.
Until he’s ready, we’ll keep taking him places. We’ll keep training him. When he can alert me to a panic attack, retrieve my meds and provide deep-pressure comfort, all while acting like a canine good citizen, we’ll slap that “service dog” patch on his vest.
And we’ll still take him to Target.