Yesterday I had the strangest conversation about service dogs that I’ve ever experienced. There are currently four dogs in my canine pack, but only one that I’m actively working towards training as a public access service dog – Zisa.
That’s her earlier this morning, resplendent in her “puppy ugly” age of 5 months. Anyway, this person and I were discussing Zisa and the rather unfortunate fact that she may end up, like many St. Croix dogs, short-legged. She is not anywhere near corgi level of short-leg-ed-ness, but she may be just a wee bit odd looking as an adult–we shall see.
This person asked me,
“well, will she still pass as a service dog then? I think you should use Humphrey, he looks more like a service dog…”
The sad part is, my brain didn’t fully process this question until after she had left, and then I was just flummoxed. First of all, here is a Humphrey:
And here is a Humphrey next to a 3 month-old Zisa:
Don’t get me wrong, he is a handsome boy! He is incredibly loving and strong and had the universe been kinder, he would have been mine after spending 12 weeks with his mother and siblings growing and learning some REALLY important things (bite inhibition, appropriate play, belonging to a pack, and a whole bunch more) and then he would have received training, healthcare, good food, and a very important job. Unfortunately, the universe had it planned that he be taken too early as a puppy (I know this because the loving doofus doesn’t understand the difference between a nibble and a crunch) and then, when he grew, “too large”; spend his life chained to a fence for their “security” (wtf?!). Being a dog, he was bored and stressed and to help with that he did the only thing he could – he chewed his chain and seriously damaged his teeth. Four years later the universe realized it was being an asshole, and moved a lovely older couple in next door to Humphrey’s fence. That couple couldn’t believe the deplorable conditions this dog was kept in and went about things the best way they knew how. Even though this was not their dog, they fed him, watered him, built him a doghouse, and even walked him daily….but Humphrey, being a big dog with absolutely ZERO training, was too much for them and he was getting very good at getting off his chain and heading directly to the road to chase cars. The older couple knew it was only a matter of time until he got killed, contacted me, and eventually Humphrey got to move to FoodLady’s house (aka dog shangri-la). So now he is being treated for his horrible heartworm infection, he will be having dental surgery soon, and he has learned the joys of pack, play, and toys. He’s not too fond of baths, but he puts up with it and would really prefer to be with his people 24-7. We are working on basic obedience, but it is incredibly challenging. Dogs are incredibly smart….at being dogs. But they learn by building on what they have learned before–the younger you begin, the easier it is. Humphrey learning that the washing machine was not, in fact, trying to kill him was a HUGE step. Humphrey learning to chase a tennis ball?! Holy Crap! That was a great milestone day! I’m incredibly proud of him and his progress. However, I would never want to attempt to train him as a public access service dog! Could it be done? Yes. With great effort, stress, training, and cost….it could be done. I would never do that to him. Why? Because it wouldn’t be fair to put him through the stress of it; his health would be adversely affected and with heartworms–that stress could kill him. When Zisa learns to alert me to a low and high blood sugar – she then has to be able to do it while walking in traffic, on an airplane, and while I’m attending or even teaching a class. At the same time she has to remain impeccably behaved, confident, clean, and unwavering regardless of surroundings. That’s a hell of a lot of work!
So, what does a service dog look like? To me, it looks like years (literally years) of training. It isn’t something chosen to be done lightly or halfway and it sure as hell isn’t about what the dog “looks like”. If Zisa ends up looking like an English Mastiff set upon 4-inch legs (dear universe, please no.) but alerts like a rock star regardless of surroundings while remaining healthy and happy – then she’s a working public access service dog. If she ends up looking like the most stunningly beautiful dog ever put upon this earth but has absolutely no interest in alerting – well then, she’s a much-loved very pretty dog.
Okie Dokie, rant over. *hugs*