Before You Commit . . .

Questions to Ask Yourself
Before Acquiring a Service Dog

There is an immense amount of media attention being shone on the subject of service dogs for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting paired with a service dog, can have a dramatic impact on your life in ways that you may never have considered. First, let me stress that a service dog is not going to fix all that is wrong in your world if you suffer from PTSD. A service dog is to be used in conjunction with traditional therapies, such as counselling and medications. There are considerations that you may not have thought about, or may not appreciate the magnitude of or the level of commitment required.

You will need to consider five questions before obtaining a service dog:
1. Are you prepared for a financial commitment that can last from ten to fifteen years?
2. Are you ready for the 24-7-365 needs of your service animal, no exceptions?
3. Are you willing to accept responsibility for continuing the training required for your service dog?
4. Are you prepared to deal with conflict?
5. Are you ready to become a focal point of attention in public?

Financial Considerations: Beyond the initial costs of obtaining a service dog, there is an ongoing financial commitment including food, grooming, toys and veterinarian care.

Daily Needs: Your service dog will need feeding, exercise, play time and to be taken out to attend to the calls of nature. This is every single day, no exceptions, rain or shine. Additionally, does your housing situation lend itself to life with a dog?

Continuation Training: Your service animal will have an amazing skill-set and those skills need to be practiced and expanded upon. A significant component of their training centers on public access training, and you as the handler have an obligation to ensure that your service dog has the opportunity to practice those skills. Additionally, your dog is a living, sentient being that will, in time, try and exert its personality into the team dynamic, which is not always positive. This will require oversight on your part to ensure your partner does not develop bad habits.

Conflicts: Even though your rights for public access with your service dog are protected by law, there is still a huge segment of society that is unaware of those protections. You must be prepared to deal with the ensuing confrontations when somebody, somewhere inevitably challenges your rights. It happens, sadly, far too frequently, and as service dogs for dealing with invisible disabilities become more widespread, hopefully the situations will diminish or, in time, completely dissipate. Remember, if your or your dog become unmanageable they have the right to refuse access. If you struggle with anger management problems, you have got to be prepared.

Attention Trap: You can never hide in public with a service dog; that is not going to happen, period. Service dogs attract attention from kids and adults in every single place that you will go. Since your service dog will accompany you to places that dogs are not traditionally seen, you will attract attention and not all of it positive. Furthermore you will have to be prepared to become a service dog statesman and mental health ambassador as you will often get asked questions that would never have arisen before obtaining your service dog. In short, you will be turning an invisible issue into something very concrete and unavoidably real. The service dog school will help you prepare for these eventualities but they cannot cover every possible scenario, and you will be the center of attention, like it or not.

If you have made it to this point and you believe you are prepared for the 24-7-365 commitment required to become a service dog handler, and you are able to deal with all the obligations, financial and otherwise, and are willing to deal with being the center of attention, good or bad, when you appear in public, then you are ready to take the next step in the process. Getting a service dog should be undertaken in consultation with your doctors and mental health care team. It is not inconsequential as it will change your family dynamic, and having the support of those you live with is absolutely paramount. The addition of the service dog will add another degree of stress and complexity to an already complicated home front as you struggle with PTSD.

How do you begin? Service Dogs can be a very useful tool for many people, but the procedures for obtaining one will require a lot of work on your part. A serious heart-to-heart with your healthcare team is required to enlist their support and to obtain the required documentation. This documentation lets the service dog school know that your healthcare team believes you are ready to undertake the challenges associated with a service dog. The letter also provides the legal basis for you to have a service dog to assist with your disability. Ensuring this documentation reflects your specific needs is crucial, as service dogs are specifically trained to do at least three tasks for their handler that they are unable to complete themselves.

What service dog certification standards exist? At present, there are no national service dog certification standards that exist in Canada. Since 2016, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian General Standards Board, are in discussions to start the process to develop those standards which will need input from other stakeholder groups, such as the Seeing Eye dog community. According to the Canadian General Standards Board, this process will likely take a couple of years to complete. Each province has a different set of requirements for certification standards. In New Brunswick the Human Rights Act defines your rights and obligations.

What is the value of service dog training? By informing your service dog training school of how your symptoms manifest and how they impact your daily life, the school will help you teach your dog how to deal with your specific needs. To address those issues, the school will train your service dog to recognise, inform you and take action before things got out of control.

Is service dog training difficult? How can you help ensure success? As a service dog handler, you are taking on the complex and often stressful job of training a service dog. Going into this, you must be aware of your abilities to do so in your current mental state, and seek support if needed. When you are was paired with your service dog, you may not be in shape, mentally or emotionally, to commit to a dog’s training. Your spouse should accompanied you to the school to understand what the dogs skills are and what is required on your end of the leash. As with all mental health care, a support system is key. >

This may sound like a lot of work and you may well ask, "Is a service dog really worth all this trouble? For you , as it has been for many before you, your service dog will be a lifesaving game changer for you and your family. A lot of negative issues that can surround Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The non-judgmental, here-and-now lifestyle of a dog can open the door for you to start dealing with trauma and diagnosis. Also, the dog’s need for both exercise and public access skills training will get you out of the house and back into the public. By and large, dog owners are a very social group, and you will find yourself re-engaged socially in conversations about your dog that have nothing to do with you.

Slowly, your confidence in each other will grow and your effectiveness as a team will start paying huge dividends for you and your family. The dog can add laughter to your life that has been missing for some time and you'll find yourself planning your days around things like ball playing sessions and walks where your service dog gets to "just be a dog".

Since it is impossible to go back in time and change the events that led to your Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, being paired with a service dog can have dramatic, positive results in your recovery, allowing you to move forward with your life, including going back to conventional therapies which are all a necessary part of a holistic healing process.

Note: Currently, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces do not endorse any particular Service Dog training program. However, Canadian Forces Health Services Group is collaborating with the Canadian General Standards Board and many stakeholder groups to develop national standards for training of Service Dogs and for screening of those who request a Service Dog. This is to ensure the appropriate matching of Service Dog and affected CAF member or veteran. The Canadian Forces Health Services Group follows literature concerning the efficacy of treatments very closely and recognizes that non-medical measures, such as Service Dogs, may be effective adjuncts to regular medical and mental health care in certain cases. However, before acquiring a Service Dog, Canadian Forces Health Services Group stresses that all CAF members should be fully informed of the potential effects that acquiring a Service Dog can have on their future mental health treatment and their military career.

Courtesy of Medric “Cous” Cousineau, SC, CD, Capt (Ret) – Royal Canadian Air Force, Co-founder Paws Fur Thought & Thai the Service Dog.