The Role of Service Dogs

Dec 27, 2016

Aaron Carriker and her service dog Lucy, who helps her manage her post traumatic stress disorder.
Credit Christopher Clymer Kurtz

Service dogs, you may be surprised to learn, are not necessarily professionally trained -- and they can assist people with a wide variety of disabilities, including post traumatic stress disorder. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

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Lucy [bark] started out as a good deed about two years ago, when Bridgewater resident Aaron Carriker responded to a call for a puppy rescue.

AARON CARRIKER: She was found in snow and ice with a litter of nine and four had frozen to death and five were okay but in bad shape.

Lucy is part beagle and part border collie, and Carriker thought she probably could be pretty useful.

CARRIKER: I thought, “I'll make her a therapy dog. I'll take her to help others, like at hospitals and whatever.” So I started reading, and there's such a thing as a psychiatric service dog, and I was like, “No way.”

Now 40, Carriker has post traumatic stress disorder, the result of 17 years of childhood abuse at the hands of her parents and others. Before rescuing Lucy, she had already been helped by an attentive dog, but only informally, as her previous dog Daisy, also a rescued beagle mix, had no special training.

CARRIKER: If I laid across the bed on my stomach because I was feeling panicky, she would lay on top of me, and that would help ground me. But I didn't teach her. It was just something natural that she did.

But Daisy wasn’t a service dog, so Carriker couldn’t take her along everywhere she went.

CARRIKER: If I was struggling with PTSD, then I just wouldn't go out because I knew it would cause a panic attack which could lead to a flashback which could lead to severe dissociation which could lead to me being just out of commission. I've been hospitalized many times, and that takes weeks to get through and so I was living very carefully, which was not fun at all.

With Lucy, Carriker learned in her research, that could be different.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says a dog qualifies as a service animal if it has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks directly related to a disability for an individual with that disability. A service dog vest or harness is required by Virginia law, but not by the ADA, which also does not require a service dog to have been professionally trained or have any sort of official certification.

Sally Day is Development Director for Service Dogs of Virginia, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit accredited by Assistance Dogs International. I asked her how many service dogs are in the state.

SALLY DAY: Well, that's an impossible question to answer because the ADA does not want a registry of service dogs.

That, she says, is to avoid placing additional burdens on people already struggling with the obstacles of a disability. Under the ADA, as long as a dog is behaving and controlled appropriately, business owners can only ask a handler two questions: if the dog is a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform.

A new law in Virginia makes it a class 4 misdemeanor to falsely represent a dog as a service animal, something Day has known to happen.

DAY: Absolutely. It's frustrating when you are working with people with significant disabilities and there are people who are claiming their dog is a service dog and it's their pet that they can't bear to be parted from. That's kind of hard to take.

Service Dogs of Virginia’s two-year program trains dogs to help people with autism, diabetes, and physical limitations. Other programs offer guide, hearing, and seizure alert training -- and more.

Aaron Carriker and Lucy went to a professional dog trainer that does not claim to train service dogs but provided behavior training -- and helped Lucy learn tasks to assist Carriker when her PTSD is problematic.

CARRIKER: Anywhere I signal her to touch, she will put both paws and she will press, and she will leave them there until I say break and release. If I'm starting to get anxious to the point of dissociating, then I'm losing like reality, so if I get that tactile stimulation from her, and I'm directing where it goes, then that pulls me out of the dissociation rather quickly. But she can sense -- and this was not trained -- she can sense when my anxiety is starting to rise and I am doing nothing about it. And she will come and punch really hard with her front paws. Dogs aren't supposed to jump on people -- but she will break out of how she knows to behave and punch me, and I'll think, “Oh, you're right, you're right.”

Lucy’s been Carriker’s working dog for about five months now.

CARRIKER: It's huge to have a way to help yourself. I'm on 10 medications. I don't want any more medicines. She's already in those few short months changed life drastically. Not that I guarantee I won't have struggles, but I have a plan. She's like my weapon, my plan.