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Service puppy. Photo courtesy of Can Do Canines.Service puppy. Photo courtesy of Can Do Canines.
Service puppy. Photo courtesy of Can Do Canines.

Working With an Assistance Dog — It’s Not Easy

TL;DR Jennifer Gravrok, PhD, demystifies the use of assistance dogs, stressing the need for a balanced, reciprocal relationship between the dog and its handler, and cautioning that the commitment extends beyond the perceived benefits, requiring significant physical, mental, and emotional investment from the handler. Her work aims to align expectations with reality, aiding individuals in making informed decisions about acquiring an assistance dog.

Jennifer Gravrok
April 18, 2024

Expert Spotlight: Jennifer Gravrok, PhD

Social media commonly portrays assistance dogs as incredible superhero dogs who help people manage their disabilities and improve their lives. Although this can be true, it’s a view from rose-colored glasses. 

Assistance dogs, also known as service dogs (the terms are interchangeable within the United States), are highly specialized dogs trained to perform skills that mitigate their handler’s disability. ‘Assistance dog’ is more internationally recognized and will be used throughout. 

There are eight generally recognized types of assistance dogs (in no particular order): 

  1. Guide dogs
  2. Mobility dogs
  3. Hearing alert dogs
  4. Diabetic alert dogs
  5. Seizure alert/response dogs
  6. Autism assist dogs
  7. Psychiatric assistance dogs (PTSD) 
  8. Medical alert dogs

Each type provides individualized skills to their handler that mitigate the handler’s unique disability.

Skills and Benefits of Assistance Dogs 

As would be expected with the variety of assistance dogs, there are many ways assistance dogs can assist their handler. For example, guide dogs guide their vision-impaired handler around obstacles on the sidewalk or assist with straight road crossings. Diabetic alert dogs alert their handler, who experiences hypoglycemic unawareness, to dangerous drops in blood sugar. Assistance dogs can be truly lifesaving. 

Resulting from the skills these dogs provide, they are also commonly touted as providing other life-changing benefits. With their assistance dog, handlers may now be able to go in public independently because their dog can open doors for them or retrieve their wallet if they drop it. They may provide feelings of safety and security because they feel someone is there to help if an emergency were to arise and they drop their phone. Instead of waiting hours for someone to arrive, their dog can get the phone or press an emergency button. The assistance dogs' skills commonly lead to increased confidence, self-esteem, quality of life, and many more positive benefits. 

The skills and benefits assistance dogs provide are known to be incredibly beneficial for people. So what’s wrong? 

When we remove our rose-colored glasses, we see that assistance dogs are not for everyone. 

Working with an assistance dog needs to create a mutually beneficial relationship. This means that both the dog and the handler benefit from this partnership. It’s not one-sided or unbalanced. For example, a relationship in which the handler receives benefits from the dog being able to pick up dropped items is great. However, they may now be expending more energy meeting the dog’s needs of exercise and basic care than they would without the dog. For a person already low on energy and regularly expends more energy in a day than they can handle, this takes more resources than they have to give and may not be a beneficial relationship for the person or dog. Say this person can’t sustain spending so much energy on the dog, and they start to slack on care or exercise for the dog. Now, the dog is not benefiting from this relationship; again, it is not mutually beneficial. Being an assistance dog handler requires a careful balance between the handler and the dog. It is one that handlers must be certain they can provide before they pursue an assistance dog. 

Having not had an assistance dog, this is very hard to know. There are so many factors that go into determining whether a person can form a mutually beneficial relationship with an assistance dog—so many that I wrote an entire book to help people decide whether a dog can provide benefits that will assist them, whether their lifestyle is conducive to adding a dog to it, and more. 

How To Determine If an Assistance Dog Is Right for You

This book, “Understanding Assistance Dogs: Is an Assistance Dog the Right Tool for You?” was important for me to write because the benefits touted from having an assistance dog greatly overshadow the challenges that people experience. This imbalance causes people to have unrealistic expectations and more challenges when working with an assistance dog. My goal is to help people better understand the challenges that result from working with an assistance dog and be more successful because their expectations are realistic.  

First, individuals must understand that assistance dogs are not magical unicorns that can solve all their disability-related problems, far from it. They cannot assist with every disability or every aspect of a disability. Assistance dogs are still dogs with all the limitations of being dogs—like not having opposable thumbs. Therefore, people need to be realistic in the skills they expect an assistance dog to perform for them. 

People also need to be realistic about their expectations for an assistance dog. Assistance dogs are not robots. You can't unplug them and put them in a closet when you are not using them. They need care, attention, patience, and understanding. They will make mistakes and have off days. If you expect an assistance dog to always work perfectly and only when needed, you will be disappointed. 

With rose-colored glasses on, assistance dogs are commonly idealized to be magical unicorns or robots, which they are not. Therefore, there is often a need to reframe what it means to be an assistance dog handler before deciding to or successfully working with an assistance dog. Otherwise, the expectations initially illuminated through rose-colored glasses will quickly turn cloudy. 

After reading my book, understanding what an assistance dog can do for a person, determining that they can form a mutually beneficial partnership, and deciding that they want to work with an assistance dog, I realized that it’s still a long road to success.

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The Training Required To Have an Assistance Dog

Before an assistance dog handler becomes a successful one, they must undergo a lot of training. I’m not talking about the dog’s training, just the person. 

Many assistance dog handlers get their assistance dog from an Assistance Dogs International accredited organization. These organizations are the best of the best and must meet very high standards for their dogs and clients before they can become a certified assistance dog team. Although every organization teaches their clients how to work with an assistance dog differently (group vs individual training and the exact process), there is one overall understanding. It’s physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. 

The training that handlers go through when working with an accredited assistance dog organization is very intense. Physically, it is demanding in ways the handlers may not have exerted themselves before or in a long time. They learn to clip and unclip their dog, repeatedly walk in circles, bend, twist and more. Training is very physical. 

Working and Adjusting to Life With an Assistance Dog

Mentally, there is much more to getting and working with an assistance dog than most people realize. After all, learning to communicate with their dog is like learning an entirely new language. Therefore, it takes a while to become fluent with each other. Even as people start incorporating their assistance dogs into their daily lives, they are still learning to work together and understand each other's signals. 

Learning to work with an assistance dog is also emotionally exhausting. By the time they have gotten to the point of working with their assistance dog, so much hope is placed on the dog before they have even met it. When training gets tough, handlers start to question themselves and their ability. Emotionally, there are highs and lows. 

I emphasize all these challenges because successful assistance dog handlers have put in immense time, work, and energy to be successful with their assistance dog. It’s not an easy process. And not one that everyone who is accepted to receive an assistance dog can accomplish. 

Next time you see an assistance dog handler, or if you have the honor to work with one, I hope you can set your rose-colored glasses aside and see the handlers for the hard work and determination they have put into being a successful team. 

ADA Accommodations and Assistance Dogs

Highlighting ADA accommodations, it's crucial to understand that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individuals with assistance dogs are entitled to certain rights and accommodations. For example, (with a few exceptions) businesses and public facilities must allow assistance dogs to accompany their handlers, ensuring that these individuals can access services and participate in public life just like anyone else. Additionally, understanding and complying with ADA regulations is vital for assistance dog handlers to ensure their rights are respected and upheld.

Read More: The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides two very helpful resources on this topic, Service Animals and Dogs in the Workplace.

Disclo is designed to facilitate the disclosure and accommodation of disabilities in the workplace and can significantly benefit assistance dog handlers. By using Disclo, handlers can confidentially communicate their needs and the role of their assistance dog in their daily work life, ensuring that appropriate accommodations are made and their partnership with their assistance dog is supported in the work environment.

About the Author 

Jennifer Gravrok, PhD has been studying the relationships that assistance dog handlers have with their assistance dog since 2016. She completed her PhD studying the benefits and challenges first-time assistance dog handlers experience working with their assistance dog at La Trobe University in 2019. Since then, she has worked for several dog assistance organizations in the United States. Currently, she is using this experience to teach handlers how to work with their matched assistance dogs at Can Do Canines in New Hope, MN. 

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