Service dogs bring both challenges, benefits to those with disabilities

Service dogs are becoming more common in the U.S. today, however this does not mean that the public is always properly informed about the rights of service dogs and their owners. Last year, Greensburg mom Lisa Roberts experienced a result of a lack of service dog knowledge while shopping at JoAnn Fabric. Roberts was told to leave the store because “pets are not allowed” even though legally service dogs cannot be denied access to any public place. Roberts said, “It made me more apprehensive for a while when we took her out after that; however, we have yet to have a similar experience anywhere else.”

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Sara Keedy poses with her service dog Noel. Noel helps Keedy with activities of daily living like removing socks and shoes and even pulling her wheel chair.

Service dog owners often run into other issues in public such as strangers wanting to play with their service dog as they would with a house pet. “It’s difficult for the kids to remember that she’s not just a ‘regular dog’, she’s definitely part of the family, but she’s not a pet,” said Roberts. College student and service dog owner Sara Keedy relates, “We all have had problems with people in public petting our dogs without permission which distracts the dog from their duty. People are unaware that when the dog has their vest on they are working, which means you cannot touch them.” Most service dogs even wear a patch that clearly says, “do not pet,” but many people fail to listen.

Many places including public universities fail to stay updated on laws protecting service dogs. Keedy experienced one example of this at her college, West Liberty University, when she was asked to pay an extra fee to have her service dog live in her on campus dorm.

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Lisa Roberts smiles with her son, Kylen, and their service dog Loki.
Kylen became a certified service dog handler at the age of 6.

“I was asked to pay an extra $300 deposit for my dorm room since an animal would be living with me. Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) a service animal is considered ‘medical equipment’ and not a pet so the charge was not added once WLU was made aware of the ADA service animal laws,” said Keedy.

There are also many rewarding parts of having a service dog. “My favorite part about having a service dog is the constant companionship,” said Keedy. Service dogs often help disabled people become more comfortable with doing things on their own, “A service dog is a working animal, they help those with disabilities become more independent and rely less on people for assistance,” Keedy explains. Roberts relates to this as she speaks of how far her son has come socially since acquiring a service dog.

“Even though training the service dog was much more difficult than I ever of expected, I wouldn’t change a minute of it for the feeling security I have for my son and the limits that have been lifted off of him!”

There are several different jobs service dogs can be trained for. These jobs include leading the blind, alerting owners of signs of seizures, tracking people, and helping with activities of daily living (ADL). Dental Hygiene major Sara Keedy takes her service dog, Noel, with her everywhere she goes to assist with ADL. “I am a t-12l-1 paraplegic that uses a manual wheelchair daily to get around.

My dog can assist me in taking my shoes and socks off, picking up items I drop or carry items for me, pull me when I am too tired to wheel myself, as well as open and close doors for me,” said Keedy.

Seven-year-old Kylen Roberts of Greensburg has a service dog for multiple other purposes in addition to assisting in ADL. Roberts has had seizures since he was ten days old and was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy at the age of two. At the age of four Roberts was also di- agnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism, and anxiety.

He was certified as a service dog handler at the shocking age of six years old. Roberts’ service dog, K9 Loki, is trained to alert to Roberts’ seizures, track and search for him, pull him up hills, and comfort him during high-anxiety situations. “She [K9 Loki] has found him in four real-life run away situations,” said Roberts’ mother.

Roberts’ service dog has accom- panied him on several trips to the emergency room and has spent two hospital stays with him as well. K9 Loki is a full-grown German Shepherd, but this does not keep her from cuddling with Roberts and comforting him when he feels anxious.

Both Sara Keedy and the Roberts family went through extensive training with their dogs that still continues on today. Keedy did the majority of her training during two weeks last summer in New York while the Roberts family opted for a program that allowed them to attend weekly training sessions held locally. “We began training when K9 Loki was twelve weeks old and went to intensive training sessions every Sunday regardless of rain, snow, and 90 degree heat.” Half of all training both dogs received was devoted to learning obedience to their owners. Both dogs and trainers had to pass tests to become legally certified.

“Your dog is not only your helper, but a companion and ultimately your best friend,” said Keedy. “Even though service dogs are not pets, they have down time just like a pet, we play and relax everyday, and service dogs are just as spoiled by their owners!”

The Roberts family is also thankful for the assistance their service dog is able to provide them with on a daily basis. “Our dogs are working and necessary to help get through each day, not just a pet we want to take with us everywhere we go,” said Lisa Roberts. “It’s a lot of work, it’s fun, I feel safe with my dog, and I love her,” said seven-year-old Kylen Roberts.

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