By Susan Spisak
September is National Service Dog Month, a time to not only create awareness for these companions who assist their humans, but to honor their efforts and devotion to them. If you could benefit from a service dog, there are organizations who can help you train your own canine or provide a dog or custom bred pup if you qualify. Here are groups who may be able to aid you, qualifications for a service dog, and how to apply for one.
If you have an eligible physical or mental disability, you will qualify for a service dog under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Maine’s Human Rights Act. These governing bodies allow qualifying persons to bring their certified service animal tasked and trained to compensate for their eligible disability into all public places, and landlords, businesses, and airlines cannot charge pet fees. (Think visual impairment, hearing loss, limited mobility for physical disabilities. PTSD, anxiety, and depression are examples of mental disabilities, and these require a medical professional’s letter attesting to the condition.)
There are many types of service dogs, some not usually considered, like Dolly Pawton in Naples, Maine, who is a Cardiac Alert Dog. Dolly is trained to alert her owner, Amy Sherwood, when her blood pressure drops, or heart rate rises to an unsafe level. Amy has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, and is also wheelchair bound, so Dolly provides multiple tasks. (Dolly won the American Humane Hero Dog Award in the Service and Guide category in 2020, and nationwide fans love her. So much so, when Amy and her dogs were facing eviction, followers raised enough money to help her buy the home.)
A Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) guide dog will help sight-impaired gain independence, confidence, and freedom. Their custom bred pups are raised and trained by fosters, and GEB prides itself on their accurate matches. GEB offers on-campus (Yorktown, NY), home, or specialized training such as multiple disabilities. They also have trained running guides–dogs who enable their handlers the freedom to run/jog safely.
To qualify, you must be 16 years old, walk regularly with a white cane, and prove you can be a responsible dog owner. A completed application includes the signed release, medical and vision report, references, home interview, and any other supporting documents and materials. Once they receive your completed application, the Admissions Committee reviews it and advises of approval or denial with reasons. Appeals accepted. (guidingeyes.org/.)
Maine Paws for Veterans, aka MPfV, was originally established as Embrace A Vet in 2012. Their motto is “Serving Veterans with Invisible Wounds” and they only train dogs to ease service-connected PTSD. This program matches dogs with vets at no cost to them.
This 501(c)(3) has three canine options. They purchase pups for their “Raise to Train” Program. They’re nurtured by volunteers until they’re old enough to be paired with Veterans, and then as a team, they’ll continue the twenty-six-week training. They also rely on shelter partners to provide hand-picked dogs as needed. (These canines are SAFER tested and evaluated with Behavioral Assessment Tools.) Lastly, there’s the Veteran’s Companion Dog option, whereby MPfV can transition their pet–if they meet the criteria–to become their service dog.
Their application process is several stages which includes the online app, copy of DD214, therapist referral letter, authorization to release confidential information, and landlord, employer, veterinarian release. Expect a background and mental check/evaluation, an interview and home visit. If you’re utilizing your own dog, there’s a canine health evaluation. There’s mandatory orientation, organizational, and independent training.
Tracy A. Shaw, Executive Director for MPfV, explains why they are so passionate about their mission: “There is no cure for post-traumatic stress (PTS). A Psychiatric Service Dog with continuing mental health treatments can resolve most PTS symptoms, and developing positive coping skills can alleviate the stress of military trauma. Maine Paws for Veterans is honored and passionate in our role of improving the quality of life of Maine Veterans and their support network.” (mainepawsforveterans.org/.)
Gardner, who utilizes a service dog herself, is Founder and President of MWD. She wanted to make a distinction when asked about the application process. “It’s helpful if people know and understand the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs. A lot of people apply for a therapy dog for themselves, but therapy dogs are meant for the mental health of community groups and don’t have public access rights like service dogs.”
Your own dog will be considered provided your veterinarian and MWD’s veterinarian agree that the dog is a valid candidate for this training. The dog must pass a health check, temperament testing, undergo a minimum of 250 hours of training, and pass skills assessment and public access test. As a candidate, you must fundraise $4,000 on your own or by attending MWD fundraising events. If you qualify for a service dog and would prefer to apply for one of their canines, there is an interview stage. All the above requirements hold true in this instance as well.
Christy indicated while approval processes are a little different for the programs, her best advice is to make sure the application is complete before it’s submitted. “You’d be shocked how many people forget attachments, or the letter from the doctor prescribing the dog doesn’t contain the required information. That usually results in long delays while we try to get ahold of the person’s doctor and get a release of information to talk the doctor, or to get a new letter with all the questions answered.” (missionworkingdogs.org/.)
Here are a few more groups who offer service dogs. Check their sites for specific application processes and all info.
The non-profit Pets for Vets, Inc. provides training only to the animals they have specifically selected for Veterans in their program. The Portland Chapter is headed up by Director Marianne Quinn. They strive to create the feelings of immediate recognition, comfort, and security, also known as the “Super Bond.” (petsforvets.com/portland-me.)
K9s on The Front Line is a Maine-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides certified, trained service dogs to military Veterans who are affected by PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries, at no cost. Their motto is “Unleashing Hope, One Dog at a Time.” They only rescue dogs facing euthanization from shelters to pair and train with Vets, allowing both rewarding lives. (k9sonthefrontline.org/.)
Training offered by the College for Pets in New Hampshire is open to Maine residents. They have a variety of programs/classes geared towards training canines for mobility, psychiatric, and stress/anxiety support, PTSD, seizure response (not alert), reading assistance, diabetic alerting, and hearing disability. Programs are for owners with a qualified adult dog or puppy. (collegeforpets.com/service-dog-training/.)
Simone Emmons is the Army Vet who founded Service Dog Strong or SDS, Maine’s only 501(c) (3) nonprofit with the purpose of saving shelter canines, raising monies to have them professionally trained and certified as service or emotional support dogs, and pairing them with women and men with traumatic, sexually- and/or rape-related PTSD at no cost to them. (facebook.com/ServiceDogStrong for app info.)