It’s one thing to be unique, but it’s another when you’re a walking, talking (and occasionally fainting) enigma.
I’m basically the main character in a mystery novel I wrote, except the mystery is me.
I’ve had a couple of nasty head injuries from these fainting spells,
And now, just to spice things up, I’ve got short-term memory loss.
After what felt like a lifetime of cardiologist visits, I was finally diagnosed with vasovagal orthostatic hypotension.
My doctor suggested getting a medical alert service dog to help me out when I faint, or to prevent me from falling in the first place.
But training my dog to be my own medical alert service dog was like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded.
This post is all about my medical alert service dog.
Paws & Proceed
Barking Through the Ages
Service dogs have been man’s best friend for centuries, with the first archaeological evidence of dogs dating back 10,000 years.
The idea of service dogs, as we know it today, was born from the brilliant mind of Bonnie Bergin in the 1970s.
The first type of service dogs were guide dogs for the blind, a need that became more prominent after WWI when many men returned home blinded by mustard gas.
The first guide dog school was opened in 1916 by a German doctor named Gerhard Stalling.
In the United States, service dogs didn’t get their legal recognition until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.
The ADA initially defined a service dog as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability.
Before that, the only service dogs with specific legal protections were seeing eye dogs or dog guides for people with visual disabilities.
These dogs first appeared in the United States in the 1920s.
Today, service dogs assist people with a variety of conditions, including PTSD, medical alert needs, and visual impairments.
Organizations like NEADS, formerly known as National Education for Assistance Dog Services and Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, and Can Do Canines in Minnesota, train dog-human teams for a wide variety of disability assistance programs.
The Unending Waitlist for a Chance at Assistance
Now, when it comes to medical alert dogs, the resources are as scarce as hen’s teeth and the waitlists are as long as a summer day.
In my area (and the surrounding states (at the time)), the process to apply involved a two-year wait period until the dogs were fully trained.
However, the waitlist in order to receive a service dog was done completely at random.
Service dogs continue to play a major role in assisting individuals, but also companionship and emotional support.
And while my condition is no more important than anyone else’s, the fear of having another syncopal episode every time I stood prompted me to finally use my years of seemingly useless canine knowledge to work.
While there is a ton of info on guide dogs, when it comes to medical alert dogs, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
And the skepticism and disbelief faced when trying to train your own dog can be as disheartening as a rainy day at the beach.
Circus Acts and Seeing-Eye Dogs Were My Only Options
After years of random, black-hole jobs, I finally landed my dream job.
And then, I woke up in my worst nightmare.
Trust me when I say, it was the kind that makes you wake up in a cold sweat.
Long story short: I received a long, nasty email that had me sobbing into my pillow for weeks.
The disability office, which should have been my safe haven, stopped taking my calls.
Now, in their defense, Avera was still a puppy and not fully potty-trained.
So, I took her home and decided to hit the pause button on her medical alert dog training until she was fully housebroken.
But then I hit a wall, and not just any wall, a workplace policy wall.
My job wouldn’t approve of a service dog unless it was a seeing-eye dog or a circus act (I kid you not, it’s in the bylaws).
I mean, seriously?
It was like trying to navigate a maze with no exit and was ridiculed for doing so.
The Smell of Success Reaked of False Hope
The moment I adopted Avera, I was on a mission.
I had letters of support from my therapist, cardiologist, family doctor, and even my direct supervisor.
To give Avera as much time as possible to get to know me, hoping she could pick up my “scent” and alert me when my blood pressure was dropping.
It’s a bit like how some dogs warn their owners when their blood sugar is dropping.
Not all dogs have this super-sniffer ability, but Avera, my little wonder pup, picked it up early on.
My aim was to get Avera certified to take the Canine Good Citizen test.
But, of course, we had to start with the basic behavior classes.
It’s like learning to crawl before you walk, right?
I found myself on the receiving end of a verbal tirade, ridiculed for seeking assistance, and told that Petsmart wasn’t a reputable company for training.
Was I the one missing a beat here?
Does this story seem as absurd to you as it does to me?
It felt like being told you can’t learn to drive unless you start with a Formula 1 race car.
It was a punch in the gut, to say the least.
But hey, every cloud has a silver lining, right?
My Struggle with Training a Service Dog in a Small State
So, I waved goodbye to Avera’s service dog career early.
Despite her poodle-rottweiler lineage, she just didn’t grow big enough to help prevent my falls.
Fast forward eight years, and here I am, back in the service dog game.
After welcoming my third child into the world, my fainting episodes decided to throw a comeback party.
But this time, we have a new player on our team – a 5-year-old golden retriever who fits the service dog bill to a T.
I’ve been a dog enthusiast since I was a kid.
I even managed to rehabilitate my first dog, Cody, who had a past in dog fighting and wasn’t a fan of other dogs or small children.
We welcomed Avera into our family and had our first two kids before Cody crossed the rainbow bridge.
Avera, despite her early retirement, turned out to be a fantastic emotional support animal.
So, I’ve decided to put on my training hat again.
This time, it’s for Takoda, our Golden, who I’m training as my medical alert dog.
It’s a journey filled with challenges, but it’s a journey I’m ready to embark on.
Barks, Leashes, and Legalities of A Dog-Eat-Dog World
I’ve been down the rabbit hole of researching medical alert service dogs, figuring out training, and navigating the dos and don’ts – especially when training my own dog.
I know it feels like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box.
I’ve been down this road and hopefully, I can help clear up some of the most common head-scratchers you might come across.
When it comes to training gear, a good quality leash and collar, a service dog vest, clickers for clicker training, and high-value treats for positive reinforcement are a must.
Of course, the list is endless as you test and try what works best for you.
But, here are some of the core service dog must-haves that I repurchased now that I’m training my second dog.
Medical Alert Service Dog Vest
Service Dog In Training Patches
The Real Scoop on Medical Alert Service Dog Rules
Now, please keep in mind that these resources are just tools.
They can’t replace the expertise of a professional dog trainer.
So, seek out organizations and resources in your area that can provide professional guidance and support.
Unfortunately, living in a small state, I don’t have that luxury.
Hopefully, the following helps shed a little more light on frequently asked questions I wish I had a deeper understanding of during round one.
1. Are service dogs allowed everywhere?
Generally, service animals can go where their humans go.
This includes places that usually have a “no pets” policy.
But there are exceptions.
For example, it might not be the best idea to bring a service dog into an operating room or burn unit where sterility is key.
And trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way. I once brought Avera to a doctor’s appointment for a sleep study.
I tried calling several times in advance to let them know, but they never answered. When I arrived and informed the front desk, the girl said “ok”.
But when my name was called, the technician laughed in my face (in the waiting room where two other patients were present) and said that a dog wasn’t allowed in the office.
I left the office in tears and cried in the parking garage.
No, let me be clear: I don’t fault them for denying her.
But, I do think this could have been handled in a much better way.
I tried to do my due diligence by calling in advance, but I should have assumed she wouldn’t be allowed.
It was yet another tough lesson learned.
2. Does a service dog have to be registered?
Nope, the ADA does not require service animals to be registered.
People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.
But I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to have as much legitimate paperwork as you can because people will hound you for proof just to still deny you anyway.
Even after eight years, I’ve considered getting a dog trainer certification, not for the prestige, but to have a legal document to wave around when I’m illegally asked for proof that my dog is trained for service.
I get it, the gray area is gray for a reason.
One good memory from my first attempt at training: I had a great experience when flying with Avera on American Airlines.
She did great in and around the airport and on the flight, and I never felt like I was being judged or questioned for bringing her on the plane.
But, after such an embarrassing initial beginning, I was prepared to have her prove her trained tasks and had a folder of paperwork with two copies of everything.
3. What is Petco’s service dog training?
Petco offers a variety of dog training services.
Their certified dog trainers focus on rewarding positive behaviors, which is proven effective and nurtures the bond between pets and pet parents through positive reinforcement.
They offer a $39 in-person private lesson, where certified trainers identify the needs of the pet and pet parents, and recommend the right training course and schedule.
They also offer virtual training classes, puppy classes, adult classes, and private lessons.
All trainers complete a comprehensive training program that is reviewed by an independent board-certified veterinary behaviorist and updated regularly with current training methods and principles.
And yes, the woman who called humiliating me on the phone scoffed at the idea of putting a dog in basic training classes.
But, despite being told PetSmart wasn’t reputable, I found their classes to be a great starting point.
It’s all about finding what works best for you and your dog.
Knowing what I know now since Takoda is already training in behavior, I am going to schedule the Canine Good Citizen Test which is, ironically, held at most PetCo locations in my area.
Life-Savers on Leashes Aren’t Exactly Priceless
What can medical alert dogs detect?
Medical alert dogs are like Sherlock Holmes with fur.
They can sniff out a whole range of health issues, sensing changes in a person’s body like blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and even changes in a person’s scent when they’re about to have a seizure.
In my case, Takoda would be like a living, breathing blood pressure monitor, trained to detect a drop in my blood pressure.
Types of medical alert dogs:
There’s a whole lineup of medical alert dogs out there, each with their own special skill set.
There are diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, allergy alert dogs, and cardiac alert dogs.
Each type of dog is like a specialized medical team on four legs, trained to assist with a specific medical condition.
What does a medical alert service dog do?
A medical alert service dog is like a personal bodyguard, trained to assist their handler with a specific medical condition.
In my case, Takoda would be trained to warn me when my blood pressure drops or is dropping by scent training.
I am going to train him to “brace” to help prevent me from falling.
This doesn’t mean I would fall on Takoda, but rather lean on him to gently work my way down to the floor, preventing a fainting spell that could lead to another injury.
How much does a medical alert dog cost?
The cost of a medical alert dog can vary widely, kind of like shopping for a car.
It depends on the specific training required, the breed of the dog, and the organization providing the dog.
Costs can range from a few thousand dollars to over $20,000.
Some organizations offer financial assistance or payment plans to help offset the cost.
This post was all about medical alert service dog training.
Medical alert service dogs are more than just our best friends, they’re our lifelines.
They keep us safe, alert, and most importantly, standing on firm ground.
They’re the unsung heroes, the silent guardians that help us navigate through life’s challenges.
If you’re interested in keeping up with #TrainingTakoda, follow me on Instagram to watch our journey.
Remember, we all have the ability to master our health, one paw at a time.
If I can move past the haunting memories of my first service dog training experience, so can you.
Let’s face it, life can be ruff, but with a little patience and a lot of love, we can make it through anything.
Stay pawsitive, and keep standing!