What it’s like to have a service dog
by Heather Anderson
Most often when someone writes a blog post, questions may arise as to the author’s own experiences about that certain topic. Is it just great research or does the author have personal experiences in that area. Our guest blogger, Stephanie Harbeck, who wrote the post about Service Dogs, was kind enough to answer some more personal questions, giving us a glimpse of her life with a chronic illness and a service animal.
How long have you had Lyme disease? Please tell me about your symptoms that lead you to consider a service animal.
I’ve been symptomatic with Lyme Disease since 2014, but it is believed I was infected around 2011. I was diagnosed in March of 2018. My symptoms started slowly. Gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, but quickly turned into joint and muscle pain, dizziness, fainting, and a vast array of other symptoms. Originally, I actually was training a service dog for psychiatric use and so it made sense to put in other tasks to help with my Lyme and POTS symptoms as they appeared and grew. My first dog, unfortunately, failed out of training at 10 months old so I began searching for a new prospect and immediately had hope it would become a cardiac alert and Lyme assistance dog and that’s when I found Aila.
When did you realize that your life would benefit from a service animal?
I realized my life could benefit from a service animal for my physical symptoms when it became too painful for me to get off the couch to open and close the front door constantly due to my temperature regulation issues. My poor husband was getting up multiple times an hour to do it for me or I was struggling to get up through hot flashes and lightheadedness to do it on my own. Once my POTS symptoms officially set in and the dizziness, vertigo, and fainting took over, I knew I definitely needed some kind of early warning system.
How did you go about the process of getting Aila? Is she your first service dog?
Aila is actually not my first attempt at a service dog. I was training a dog prior to her, a Lab mix, who unfortunately failed out of training due to protective instincts and his lack of working drive. I began looking at breeders locally for a new prospect but they either didn’t have what I was looking for, or the wait was too long. I accidentally stumbled across Aila’s breeder in a Poodle group on Facebook and somehow the cards fell on the table just perfectly for me to get her. Her breeder was kind enough to fly her personally to me from Ohio to Washington state just 4 weeks after I found her when Aila was 10 weeks old.
What breed is Aila and why did you choose that breed?
Aila is a Standard Poodle. I was stuck between a Golden Retriever or a Poodle. I knew I wanted a working drive dog who had an easy going temperament and would be easier in the training department. I definitely wasn’t looking for a challenge. The deciding factor ended up being the lack of shedding in the Poodles. My husband does have a minor dog allergy so we agreed that a Poodle would best suit the needs of the household.
If not mentioned above, where did you get her?
Aila came from Element Standard Poodles in Findlay, Ohio. Her breeder is a wonderful person who cares about her dogs immensely and does thorough health and temperament testing. Her dogs even have service dogs in their lines on top of being active in sports so Aila was genetically set up to have a great chance at making it through her training.
How did she get trained? What made you decide to go that route versus the other options you mentioned in your article?
Aila was trained entirely by me. Prior to getting sick, I was a professional dog trainer so it made sense for me to go this route. She is 100% trained with positive reinforcement. I use a combination of food and play as her reward system depending on what she’s learning and whether we’re in public or at home. My goal has always been for her to want to work. If she enjoys her job and it’s a positive experience for her, she’ll be far more likely to succeed at it.
In your article, while you mentioned that “training is never truly finished,” how long did it take for Aila to get trained?
Aila is technically not done training. While she does have multiple tasks under her belt and is fully public access trained, we’re always working to improve her current behaviors and add new ones. She is currently a year and a half old and once she’s two I plan to have her hips and elbows x-rayed to see if she’s suitable for mobility work. If she is, she’ll go on to learn a new set of behaviors to assist me in certain mobility tasks. At around two and a half years old she will likely be “done” with her training. Then for the rest of her working life, it will be maintenance training and possibly the occasional new task or behavior added to her repertoire depending on my needs.
What tasks can Aila do?
Aila currently does cardiac alert (Alerting when my heart rate is too high), cardiac response, deep pressure therapy, she opens and closes doors, turns lights off and on, picks up items and brings them to me, carries items, retrieves medication, and block and cover (which means standing in front of or behind me to keep people from getting too close). I am also currently working on training her in fainting response.
What are some struggles you’ve experienced both while training and after-during her work experiences (whether encountering uninformed people or maybe her behavior?)
I’m not going to lie, being a service dog trainer is hard. Aila has thankfully always handled crazy situations with grace, but I have had instances of people asking me rude questions. “What’s wrong with you?” “You don’t look disabled.” “You don’t look like you need a service dog. You probably just want to take your pet everywhere with you.” I have also been screamed at in public for not letting people pet her, Aila has been hit with carts, I have been cornered in aisles so people can ask questions and try to touch her. Aila has also been nearly attacked twice by fake service dogs in stores. The stories go on and on. It takes a toll on a person mentally, and sometimes it sets back your training. I have been known to suffer through a public experience without her just so I can feel normal again and not be stared at or stopped. I also frequently sit in the car while my husband goes in somewhere alone on days when I just don’t want to deal with it. Some days are great and we have no issues, but other days can be really hard and as a handler that’s something you have to learn to deal with.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your experiences owning, handling, or obtaining a service dog?
I’ll just say, it’s a lot of work. For anyone reading this, having a service dog is a wonderful addition to your life that can truly make things significantly easier, but like all things in life it has its downfalls. Before you jump into this world, make sure you’re prepared for the pitfalls. That being said, the feeling of your dog doing a task for you that would otherwise be difficult for you to do alone and knowing you have that support in an animal that loves you unconditionally, is indescribable. Aila is an integral part of my life. She has made it so much easier to get through. Facing struggle is always better with a partner.
Were you familiar with the guidelines and regulations of service dogs before your need arose, or with the handling and training of dogs before?
While I was a professional trainer I knew very little about service dogs prior to getting my first prospect. My first dog was very much a learn along the way sort of thing. Once I got Aila things went much smoother as I already knew a fair amount. I do wish I had studied more in the beginning. I would have made far fewer rookie mistakes that made training and learning the ins and outs of public access much less difficult for me.
Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your and Aila’s story. If you’d like to see more of Aila’s story you can follow her on Facebook at Aila’s Service Dog Journey or Instagram @servicedogaila. To find our more about the laws regarding service animals and frequently asked questions, head on over to https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.