Does Anyone Really Need a Service Dog?

I am probably going to get some crap over this, but indulge me.

I started writing a blog post and, as happens sometimes, things weren’t coming out how I wanted them to and I was veering way off topic and was unable to make everything come together coherently. I deleted the post until another time when I can better put my thoughts into words. However, it got me to thinking, do I really need a service dog? Does anyone?

It may just be me, but it seems like service dogs are becoming more and more popular in the last several years. Dogs are being trained to help people with everything from helping with mobility to managing psychiatric disabilities. It seems that it wasn’t that long ago that people only had service dogs if they were blind.

Service dog history goes back much further than most realize starting with a first century A.D. fresco of a blind man being helped by his dog from the ancient Roman city, Herculaneum. Chinese scroll paintings and wood carvings from the Middle Ages show similar images. What started with dogs helping the blind evolved, albeit slowly, into dogs helping with so much more.

A Timeline of Modern Service Dog Training

  • 1750’s Paris: A hospital for the blind started a systematic approach to teaching dogs to aide the blind.
  • 1819 Vienna: Austrian founder of the Institute for the Training of the Blind, Johann Wilhelm Klein published one of the first training manuals for coaching guide dogs.
  • Germany right after WWI: The start of guide dog training as we know it today began. A German doctor by the name of Gerhard Stalling was the head of the German Ambulance Association. During the war the organization trained dogs to transport messages and search for wounded soldiers. After witnessing first hand how protective his German Shepard became of a blind soldier, he had the dogs retrained to assist the many soldiers that had become blind during war due to the use of mustard gas.
  • 1923 Potsdam Germany: German Shepherd Dog Association opened a training center that trained 4,000 guide dogs for blind veterans.
  • October 1927 Saturday Evening Post: An article ran by Dorothy Harrison Eustis about the Potsdam school and it’s dogs. Since 1920 Dorothy had been breeding and training police dogs for the Swiss Army. The Potsdam school caught her attention prompting a visit that inspired the Saturday Evening Post article. After the piece ran she received a letter from a blind 19 year old Morris Frank from Tenessee who asked for her help. He wanted her to train him to teach dogs to help blind people. A year later Frank traveled to Switzerland and returned home with his canine companion.
  • 1929: Morris Frank and Dorothy Harrison Eustis opened the first guide dog school in America, The Seeing Eye.
  • 1934: Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was founded in England.
  • 1975: Canine researcher Bonnie Bergin visits Asia where she sees donkeys being used to assist disabled people and wonders if dogs can be trained to do the same thing. On her return to the states she went to a shelter and adopted a puppy that she then took to the Santa Rosa Disability Center to work with the patients. She has since trained dogs to do everything from read simple words to find diseased plants in vineyards.
  • 1989: Bonnie Bergin testified before Congress during the creation of the American’s with Disabilities Act and help clarify and define terms.
  • 1990: American’s with Disabilities Act was passed.

And here we are.

There is no denying that humans and dogs have an unique relationship that has evolved over thousands of years, one helping the other. Humans train dogs to help with various tasks as the needs arise and dogs do these jobs happily for shelter, food, and love.

This all brings us back to my original question, do people really need service dogs, or is it more of a want?

My decision for a service dog came after loosing my balance, falling, and hurting my wrist. I started thinking very seriously about it. I wanted to wait until my elderly dachshund passed away because he has been an only dog his entire life and I didn’t want him to feel displaced or replaced. I had reached a point where I decided I was tired of, and somewhat scared, of falling and I wanted a dog to help me because my family wasn’t exactly reliable or always available. I didn’t want to be alone. I started looking around and researching what kind of dog I would want and it was during that time I found an adorable Great Pyrenees/Bloodhound mix puppy. I knew that dog was supposed to be mine and I fought tooth and nail to get him. Not long after he came home I fell again injuring my back.

When I showed up at the doctors office with an injured back my doctor wrote me a letter of medical need for my dog. I am pretty sure that my doctor considers “need” anything that keeps me out of his office for injuries and illnesses. If a vogmask can keep me from getting allergy related bronchitis, in his mind, I need it. If a dog is going to help me keep my balance and prevent injuries, I need one.

It is my understanding that, for the most part, doctors don’t look at patients and say, “You need a service dog.” It is the patients that decide they need the dog and approach their doctor about it.

I mean, I have a cane, crutches, and a wheelchair. I can get around on my own with these items. I could get along well enough without a dog. Medically, 99% of us who have service dogs could deal with our disabilities without our dogs. My theory, and I could be wrong, after all, it’s just a theory, is that, on some level, we all decided we wanted a service dog not only because we know they will make our lives easier, but because we also want the companionship. The majority of disabled and chronically ill people find that at some time they end up isolated because of their health. Friends and family don’t understand, are unsympathetic, or are not supportive. Friends stop coming around and calling because they don’t have the patience for someone that just can’t get up and go do something on a moments notice or don’t want to be let down by someone who they made plans with who has to suddenly back out because they are sick. Our dogs will always be there with their unconditional love.

In the world of service dogs, there is a very fine and blurry line between want and need. We may want a dog to help us keep our balance or warn us of allergens, we may find we need that dog for companionship and independence that would wouldn’t have otherwise. However you choose to look at it, service dogs are pretty amazing and we are lucky to have them.

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