specially trained pets give independence back to the owners they love
Story by Eddy Hoyle + Photos by W Photography
Dolce, a 7-pound Peekapoo, is a small but mighty service dog who has saved Beth Bolcer’s life three times in the last five years. Bolcer was severely injured in a car wreck 20 years ago and spent the next five years in and out of the hospital for various surgeries. She has a severe neurological pain syndrome that causes severe muscle spasms and tremors, difficulty breathing, and possible unconsciousness.
Bolcer has a permanent pump implanted under the skin loaded with a cocktail of medications, and it is when her medications are low, or when the battery needs replaced, that she is in the most danger.
“I lived with my parents for a while, but I didn’t want my parents spending the rest of their lives caring for me,” she said. She now lives independently, but alone. Mobility and handicap accessibility issues were high on the list of things she had to address, so she found a handicap-accessible condo on the ground floor and got an electric wheelchair.
Friends worried about her living alone and insisted on giving her a dog, not a service dog, just a pet for companionship and comfort. Enter Dolce!
Dolce naturally seemed to sense when Bolcer’s medications were low. “He just acted weird,” Bolcer said. “There seemed to be a direct correlation between his behavior and my medication levels. He usually started acting strange about a half hour before I realized anything was wrong. But he’s never been wrong. It’s been me poo-pooing him that’s always been wrong.”
Friends suggested that Bolcer call dog trainer Alison Armao of Leader of the Pack to find a meaningful way for Dolce to alert Bolcer when she was in danger. Dolce is now trained to bring her a small towel as a warning signal to check her medications. Even more amazing, if Bolcer becomes unconscious or has trouble breathing, Dolce is trained to use his paw to set off an alarm mounted on the floor that automatically calls for help. He has successfully performed this task three times.
Dolce is a sweet, eager canine that wants to be of service and loves to learn new tasks. “Alison and I try to imagine different scenarios and think about what he can do to help me survive,” Bolcer said. Dolce can bring a walking cane to Bolcer, retrieve her keys, phone, and even prescription bottles. One of Dolce’s favorite tasks is to help with the laundry. He carries each item from the dryer to Bolcer to be folded. “The next thing I want him to learn is how to fold, too!” Bolcer laughed.
Armao has been a dog trainer for about 30 years and explained that service dogs are different from therapy dogs. Both must be at least one year old for training, both must complete basic and intermediate obedience training, and if they pass certain criteria they can become AKC Canine Good Citizens—or comfort dogs. After additional training, and if the dog has the right temperament and is not a bite risk, an evaluation and test is conducted to license the dog as a therapy dog, allowing them to visit places like nursing homes, schools, and libraries. She recommends that licensing be conducted by Alliance Therapy Dogs because they provide insurance to protect the owner from liability and perform background checks (which many institutions require) on the dog owner.
Service dogs require even more stringent training because they perform specific tasks for one specific individual based on their disability and needs. “Dogs smell 400 times better than humans and are able to smell cancer, for example,” Armao said. They are trained to alert to various conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart problems, and more. They are also trained to provide physical support to those who have conditions such as multiple sclerosis, polio and other physical disabilities by helping their handlers to get out of chairs, climb stairs and provide physical support when walking. Service dogs also serve as guide dogs for the blind.
Armao’s passion is training service dogs and she has a pit bull trained to provide emotional support for a teenager who was cutting herself. The dog can recognize depression and sits on her chest to divert her from hurting herself and provide comfort. For a severely autistic child, Armao trained a large dog to calm and gently restrain the child, and when needed, to confine the child to a corner of the room.
She has recently started to train Alan Chase and his 1-year-old German Shepherd, Sadie. Chase was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic over 25 years ago and must take insulin shots five times a day. He has trouble with his legs, has had back surgery and a triple bypass, and has swelling behind his left eye. He needed an extra safety measure in his life.
Chase and his wife, Kelly, adopted Sadie from the Humane Association in March. They searched for the right dog for over a year with the help of Armao. “The core fundamentals of Sadie’s training will be to detect drops and spikes in my blood sugar,” Chase said. The training has just begun and wherever Alan goes, Sadie goes — to church, to the store, to doctors appointments. “Sadie has good potential and is very loving. I hope she will be another way to avoid diabetic coma at night,” he said. The task training will enable Sadie to identify scents and give Alan an alert signal. It will take a long time to complete, so for the time being, Kelly collects her husband’s shirts when he has a large drop or spike in his sugar levels. The scented shirts are kept in ziplock bags until Sadie is ready for that part of the training. This dog is indeed man’s best friend.
Etiquette & Safety Tips Around Service Dogs
If you see a dog wearing a service dog harness (usually red), take heed:
Put your puppy love and enthusiasm for dogs on hold! Service dogs are remarkable canines specially trained to aid those with disabilities. They are working and on task to do a job, so it’s essential that you don’t interrupt or distract them. The dog is the handler’s lifeline. Learn to see service dogs as medical equipment, not pets. They are medically necessary just like wheelchairs, oxygen tanks or crutches.
Approach the handler, not the dog. However, if curiosity is your motive, reconsider! The handler is routinely bombarded with questions. People ask why the handler has a service dog, the dog’s purpose and task, its training, age, breed etc. Medical history and diagnoses are private matters, and frankly, making inquiries about personal information is rude. If you must speak to a handler, ignore the dog.
Keep your dog and your kids away. Again, distractions are dangerous. And too much excitement, noise and agitation causes anxiety and stress on the service dog that is focused on doing one thing — its job.
Never offer food to a service dog. It can distract the dog from its job, but the dog may also be on a strict diet or have food allergies. If it becomes sick, the handler is at risk.
Service dogs are protected under federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act grants service dogs access to any public place without exception (assuming they are under control) – so if dogs bother you, it’s up to you to remove yourself from the situation.
Service dogs come in all shapes, sizes, breeds and colors. Not all service dogs are the same, nor are they all large breeds like German Shepherds or Labradors. So don’t judge or make assumptions if you think it “doesn’t look” like a service dog.
An unattended service dog is a sign its owner needs help. An unattended dog in a service harness is unusual and might be a clue that it is seeking help. In this instance, follow the dog and it will lead you to its owner. Assess the situation and if necessary, call 911 immediately.
What not to say…please! It’s shocking how many times those with service dogs hear, “I’d love to have a service dog!” Really? Think about your words because what you are really saying is, “I wish that whatever is wrong with you was wrong with me, too!” And don’t say, “I wish my dog could go everywhere with me!” You would not only have to have a disability, you would also have to go through thousands of hours of training. Be sensitive to the fact that the handler you are speaking with would probably prefer not to have a service dog at all to assist them.