17May

The World of Service Dog Organizations: Where to Begin?

Not every dog can be a service dog. I am proud to say I trained Ripley myself, with some assistance, and a lot of helpful advice and support. But I was incredibly lucky. She is a remarkable dog. I just happened to have a puppy who turned out to be perfectly suited, later on in her life, to be a service dog.

This time around, I knew I didn’t want to start from scratch, all on my own. I really wanted to work with a service dog agency, to have help finding the right dog, so I could transition smoothly. Ripleys don’t happen every day.

When I started thinking about finding a new service dog, I was living in Sonoma County, California, so of course, the first possibility that came to mind was Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa. I figured since I was a local, it was the most natural place to start. However, I didn’t get very far. I filled out the online application, knowing that according to the FAQ page, I could expect a response within 4-6 weeks, and if I qualified, the application process would take about six months – then I would go on the waiting list. To my surprise, I heard back in just a few days, a quick email saying I did not qualify.

It was a frustrating way to start the search. As I investigated further, looking at agencies as far away as Canine Assistants in Georgia, I discovered the same problem again and again – most nonprofit agencies specialized in certain types of assistance dogs. One might focus on seizure alert dogs and dogs to help people with physical disabilities (i.e., primarily people in wheelchairs). Another might focus on people with physical disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and children with autism. Still another might provide dogs who specialized in physical disabilities, diabetes alert, and seizure alert. Somehow, each agency that I found had categories that I didn’t quite fit into.

I couldn’t seem to get past that initial questionnaire. Yes, I have a seizure disorder, but it’s under control. Yes, I have a psychiatric disability (bipolar disorder), but I am not a veteran, and many of the agencies stated they only trained dogs to help with PTSD or depression. My primary disability is something no one has ever heard of before, a genetic disorder called Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis Disorder. I had a hard time getting anyone to understand that I actually am physically disabled. I am paralyzed – it’s just that it is episodic. I never know when it’s going to happen. I look like I’m fine, and then, bam! I’m slumped in my chair, unable to move. Things fall out of my hands. I’m incredibly vulnerable, especially if I’m out in a public place.

But I wasn’t even getting through the gatekeepers to describe any of this. I just kept getting the answer “No, we don’t train dogs for that.”

The wonderful thing about these nonprofit organizations is that they provide service dogs at no cost to the clients. Everything is funded by donors. The downside is that there is a huge demand. Waiting lists are often two years long. So I knew that even if I could get an agency to accept me, choose to work with me, I may be looking at a very long wait.

I contacted Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe. Since I was moving to New Mexico, I thought that might be a good bet. They have a shared cost approach, with the client paying part of the expense. For in-state residents, it comes up to a little over $6,000. The first chunk, $75 for registration and $450 for an initial assessment and evaluation, is nonrefundable, even if you are not accepted into the program. And still, there would be a six month to two year waiting period. Assistance Dogs of the West trains dogs for those with mobility challenges, seizure and diabetes response dogs, autism dogs, and dogs to help with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Because of the way the program described their “mobility challenges” dogs, it sounded like a possibility. I wrote a long email inquiry, and then followed up with a phone call. The person I spoke with said she didn’t think the program would be a good fit for me. I was beginning to get incredibly discouraged.

There was one more option in New Mexico – American Service Dogs. This group is  in a different category. In addition to all of the nonprofit service dog organizations, there are also private companies and individuals who train working dogs. They are not receiving donor dollars. So, you pay for your dog. But, you also don’t have to sit on a waiting list for two years. And you can ask for more customized training, suited to your needs. I decided I was willing to investigate.

There are several things about American Service Dogs that I like, besides the things I just mentioned. Instead of selectively breeding special dogs, like most service dog organizations, they go to local shelters to find their dogs. Since Sabrina and I have a long history of supporting animal rescue efforts, this is highly appealing – giving a dog a second chance. Also, most of the service dog organizations train a dog for two years, then you come in and spend two weeks working together, during which time you are expected to bond. At American Service Dogs, the process takes place over six months, as the two of you train together, establishing the connection. Since it’s right here in Las Cruces, I can do that. Finally, the cost is not that high, comparatively – it’s actually less than the in-state fee for Assistance Dogs of the West.

So we made the decision. American Service Dogs it is. Time to go meet our new dog!

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