Service Dog Wins More Friends Than its Owner
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but my dog has more Facebook friends than I do. Don’t get me wrong, he’s more than earned them, but it’s still a little awkward when strangers say hello to Coal before me. Coal is an 11-year-old black Labrador retriever, and for the last nine years he’s been my service dog and best friend. He makes friends so easily, mostly because people mistake his red service vest for a superhero cape.
After being born with a rare birth defect, I now use a wheelchair to move around. But like every 22-year-old college student, I love my independence. Coal makes that possible. He helps me live independently and successfully with a disability. He’s probably the hardest working college student I know. He pulls my wheelchair, picks up dropped pencils, opens doors, pushes elevator buttons, and a host of other normal daily activities that can seem inconsequential to a person without a disability, but go far in helping me through my day-to-day activities. It’s true he sometimes snores a little loudly during class, but I guess after learning 35 commands, its not fair to expect him to learn about Art History as well.
Not every dog can be a service dog. Coal went through rigorous screening and training to become the superhero he is today. Puppies are evaluated based on their temperament, health status, energy level, and much more. If they satisfy these requirements, then the puppies are placed with a foster family or student handler, who will help raise and train the service dog. In the beginning, the puppies are taught simple commands like sit, stay, down, and come. Then the dog graduates to learning how to retrieve objects, open doors, turn on lights, and different commands that will assist with daily living tasks. The dog will learn more specialized tasks, to fit the needs of the person he will be paired with. For example, we train some dogs to alert to sounds and noises for the hearing impaired. Other dogs we teach how to handle zippers for someone with limited motor skills. Even though the dogs are well trained and extremely intelligent, when their vest comes off they know they are off duty. They play and frolic like a typical pet. Once the dogs are about two years old, they are placed with the person with a disability and the indescribable friendship and bond develops.
After experiencing firsthand how service dogs can have a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities, I decided to become more active in the MidAmerica Service Dogs’ Foundation. I helped foster and train over fifteen service dogs for people with a wide variety of disabilities. I personally know the benefits of a service dog, and I always wanted to help other people with disabilities feel that same sense of independence that Coal has helped me achieve. Through MidAmerica I also have the opportunity to educate people about service dogs and the impact they can have showing people that these dogs are more than just pets, but often an essential aid to daily life. It is so enriching to see a dog that you’ve trained going to help a child with a mobility issues or even someone in a wheelchair.
This past year, I expanded our program to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I am currently a student. Partnering with Applied Health Sciences Student Council and Midamerica Service Dogs’ Foundation, students are helping to foster and train three service dogs. The University of Illinois has long been a leader in disability services, and now we are pioneering this groundbreaking initiative. The Illini Service Dog Training Program- A Satellite of MidAmerica Service Dogs’ Foundation will help raise awareness of service dogs and the disability community among students. We’ve received amazing support from faculty, students, and the surrounding community. Eventually we’re hoping a that dog trained by the program will go to help a fellow Illini with a disability.
To follow our progress, please check out our blog at http://uofiservicedogproject.blogspot.com/ or find us on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/illiniservicedogtraining
For more information about MidAmerica go to http://www.midamericadogsfoundation.org/
MidAmerica is also on Facebook at