Service Dogs as a Last Resort

Bradley sitting in front of the fireplace at the gym we go to.

Anyone who uses a service dog knows that life without one would be completely different.  These dogs are the difference between independence and total dependence on others for those of us with life-limiting disabilities.  They mitigate our disabilities in a manner that allows us to experience things that we wouldn’t be able to without the help of another person, and in some cases, they help us in a way that no human ever could.  That’s why it’s so surprising that it’s not uncommon for others, some service dog users included, to take the position that a service dog should be one of a person with a disability’s last resorts.

There are plenty of advocates for the use of service dogs by disabled people who are of the opinion that all other disability mitigating options should be exhausted before acquiring a service dog.

The Thinking Behind the “Last Resort” Mentality

There’s no arguing that deciding to use a service dog is a major life choice.  While the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, switching from alternative mobility aids (or none at all), to a service dog partner requires a significant lifestyle change.  This is a decision that is not to be rushed or taken lightly; and that is the foundation on which the mentality of seeing service dogs as a last resort is based.

Having a service dog entails all the responsibilities of normal dog ownership, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite gaining a level of independence which was previously impossible, adopting the service dog lifestyle presents a whole new set of limitations.  Not only does the disabled handler have herself to worry about, but she now has the needs of another living creature on her shoulders and will need to be considered before anything else.

Service dog handlers appreciate these sometimes challenging aspects of service dog partnership more than most others could.  It is with first hand experiences in mind that some seasoned handlers will seem to be attempting to dissuade others from adopting the service dog lifestyle.

Generally, it is the thinking of those with the “last resort” mentality, that there are probably much easier solutions to the problems our disabilities present for some of us than the major lifestyle change of getting a service dog.  Many people, both disabled and not, proclaim that if they could do something as simple as taking a pill, rather than being burdened by all that is involved with using a service dog, they would.  While it’s perfectly acceptable for them to make such a claim in reference to themselves, it isn’t fair to project their own feelings on others.

Double Standard
The majority of disabilities that service dogs are used to mitigate are not easily treated with medication.  This reality fosters an unhealthy dynamic between those whose disabilities that are helped by medication and those whose are not, and a double standard is created.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to criticize a blind guide dog user for choosing a guide dog over a cane. However, it would be just as difficult to pick an individual at random, who would support the decision of someone with a debilitating mental illness to use a psychiatric service dog instead of taking medication.

In conjunction with an existing stigma attached to mental illness, this double standard leaves those with psychiatric disabilities, who wish to use service dogs, deserted; far from a level playing field.

Flaws in the Medication Mentality
Disabilities of a psychiatric nature are not the only ones that are potentially treatable with medication.  Furthermore, medication is not the only alternative treatment or method of disability mitigation.  Options vary greatly from one disability to another, and from one person with a similar disability to another.  However, medication tends to be the common denominator in this debate.  Based on personal experience, it seems that the vast majority of the general public, as well others with disabilities has reached a consensus; if medication is a treatment option, deciding to take it should be a no-brainer.

There is no such thing as a miracle drug.  While one type of medication may be entirely effective for some people, for others, it does nothing.  Alternatively, It is not at all uncommon for the medicine to achieve the desired result, yet simultaneously produce intolerable side effects that can sometimes equate or exceed the severity of the condition it is intended to treat.

However common or socially acceptable it is to take medicine for any given medical condition, the decision to do so is a very personal one.  Factors to be taken into consideration vary from condition to condition and from individual to individual.  No one, regardless of how well-versed he or she is on the subject, should pass judgement on another for what they decide to do with their own body.

There should be no correlation between a disabled person’s willingness, or lack thereof, to experiment with various options and others’ assessments of wether that person’s decision to use a service dog was made appropriately.  In the same spirit, a person who decides to use a service dog after alternatives have proven ineffective, should not be viewed as any more validated in their position than one who simply decides that the medication is not for her.  As long as the person has dedicated as much time as is necessary, to consideration for all the responsibilities, challenges, benefits and other aspects of a service dog lifestyle he or she has made an informed decision.

Divided We Fall

Within the service dog community, there are a variety of issues that many members will never see eye to eye on.  Some of these include, but are not limited to, owner training, certification and how to handle access challenges.  While civil debate is healthy and promotes growth within the community, allowing issues like these to divide us opens the door for our rights to disappear before our eyes.

The same applies to the argument that alternative methods of disability mitigation should be attempted before one decides to use a service dog.  If we cannot agree that how each individual chooses to treat his or her disability is a personal decision and not a black and white matter, we can’t expect others to either.  We then stand the risk of having our rights amended with restrictive terms and conditions; like our disabilities being defined by how many drugs we must pump into our system behind closed doors to retain rights in the outside world.

All members of the service dog community should support one another, whether or not we agree with each other about everything.  In the United States, people with disabilities are given significant rights and unless we stand united to fiercely defend them, they can slip away.

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4 thoughts on “Service Dogs as a Last Resort

  1. This article is certainly going to help me with my employer. I am in the process of getting a service dog, and my employer is just not wrapping their head around it. They keep asking me how the dog will assist me in my job that I do not perform now. I am on a hoast of meds for PTSD. I am having problems with my meds and was looking for something else when I found the service dog program. If you have an e-newsletter I would like to be added to the recipient list. Thank you for all your great work.

  2. Excellent post. I believe all PWDs should make the most of whatever resources are available to us — as long as we are comfortable with them and they work for us — whether that’s assistive tech, assistance animals, or whatnot.

    I think there is a general attitude among PWDs (especially those who do not identify as being disabled or in the disability rights movement) of “last resort” for any assistive equipment, especially if it is visible to others. There are a million “reasons”: “I don’t need it as much as X,” or “I don’t want to become dependent on it,” or whatever. I think it comes down to internalized ableism, very often.

    For me, the best thing is a combination of assistive tech, a service dog, and human assistance. I would like to need less human assistance, but for now, while my hopefully future SDiT is a pup, that’s just how it is.

  3. It is exactly true that life without a service/assistance dog would never be the same as it is with one and those that judge the decision of a person having an assistance dog over assistance equipment and taking medication have no idea.There are definately other benefits that an assistance dog brings into ones life. It’s not just the helping of tasks, but it’s the companionship, being there when feeling a little low, those gorgeous eyes looking into yours with an eternal passion to be there every second of your life, the ability to calm andthis doesn’t even touch the surface. One only has to see the reaction of a person who has a disability when an animal enters thier life. These are things that medication and assistance equipment for disabilites cannot bring into your life.
    Thank you for sharing your story and life with Bradley and soon to be service dog Lexington.

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