To say that Maggie, a gangly black-and-white Great Dane, is man’s best friend would be an understatement. Darcy Maloney, of Wall, Texas, spends nearly every waking moment (and most sleeping ones) with the 6-year-old dog, who, for the past year, has worked day in and day out as her service pet. Maloney, a 24-year Air Force veteran, was diagnosed as having Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, a collection of disorders characterized by joint hypermobility, skin hyperextensibility, and skin frailty. “My joints roll easily when I walk. Maggie catches me,” Maloney said. “With my military service, I’m classified as 80 percent disabled, mostly due to spine issues compounded by Ehlers-Danlos. On top of it all, I get muscle spasms. Amazingly, Maggie can sense before one comes on.”
Service Dog Central, an online forum for service dog partners and trainers, estimates there are 100,000 to 200,000 emotional support dogs (those that are doctor-prescribed to benefit a disabled individual’s mental well being but that do not require training) and service dogs (those trained to perform tasks to aid a disabled individual) in the United States. Therapy dogs are pets that have been trained, tested, registered, and insured to benefit the physical and mental well being of individuals they visit in nursing homes or hospitals. The owners of emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not legally entitled to bring their pets where animals are not permitted; service dogs are considered medical equipment, however, and often are permitted.
According to the American Kennel Club’s website, there are three types of service dogs: guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs. Guide dogs assist their blind and visually-impaired owners with navigation. Hearing dogs alert their deaf or hearing-impaired owners to sounds. Service dogs like Maggie assist individuals who have a disability that is not vision or hearing related, such as seizures, low blood sugar, or individuals who use wheelchairs.
Maloney was already “dog mom” to Maggie when she spotted in Wal-Mart the first Great Dane service dog she had ever seen. She admitted that “I just went crazy and broke every rule” regarding how to approach service dogs and their owners in public. “I petted the dog and asked why he [the owner] had the dog, which you’re essentially asking the [owner’s] medical condition. I got to looking more and more. I asked the lady at the VA, and she gave me TADSAW’s (Train a Dog Save a Warrior) card. My rheumatologist supported [me having a service dog]. My doctor on base supported it.”
Finally, after extensive research, Maloney felt comfortable moving forward with training. She contacted TADSAW, a program that, according to its website, is “designed to re-connect and heal veterans…with the training of a canine battle buddy.” TADSAW training is free and lasts fifteen to 25 weeks. The first phase is devoted to helping the dog acquire the skills necessary to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizenship course. The second phase of the program is focused on socializing the dog in public places. The third portion of the training involves public access work where service dogs are permitted; the dog and owner are TADSAW accredited upon completion of the public access temperament test.
Maloney met with two trainers once or twice a week in various places (the grocery store, mall, restaurants, etc.). TADSAW, Maloney said, is a national organization with trainers throughout the country. “The course with the TADSAW group that helped me is about six months, but everything I’ve read says it takes a good two years to train a service dog, and I can see why,” Maloney said.
Before she had a service dog, Maloney said she used to marvel at how neat it is for people to “get” to take their dog everywhere with them. “Now I understand that it’s much like taking a toddler with you,” she said. “Standing in a checkout line, do you ever worry if your toddler is standing with you like you taught them? Or is she…taking food or candy from a stranger? I still have to watch out for her.”
(Service) Dog Days
Maggie’s day starts with a trip outside to the Maloneys’s yard. “She knows the commands to go potty,” Maloney said. “I make sure she’s done that before we leave.”
Like anyone else, Maloney runs her errands, except with a towering Great Dane at her side. She also brings along a blanket or yoga mat for Maggie to lie on, along with water and a bowl. “In the summertime, I have to watch the heat level on the asphalt,” she said. Maloney said that if she cannot stand barefoot on the pavement for 30 seconds, they return home.
As if demonstrating, Maggie beseechingly rested a paw in Maloney’s hand. “You’re fine,” Maloney told her. “I know; lying on the floor is rough.”
So far, Maloney said, Maggie does not know any commands other than those basic to a service dog, such as “sit,” “down,” “brace” (when Maloney needs to be steadied), and “leave it.” Of the latter command, Maloney said, “She can’t pick things up off the floor unless I’ve approved it. She also can’t get out of the car until it’s clear.” Maloney said she knows to look both ways when approaching a street.
Maggie can go anywhere and everywhere with Maloney, with the exception of the operating room when she has surgery. At church, Maloney lays out a blanket or yoga mat on a pew so Maggie can sit without leaving behind a film of dog hair. In the grocery store, Maggie is trained not to look at the meat counter, but Maloney said she is not as retrained in the pet aisle. “She stares at the fluffy toys,” Maloney said. “That’s her big weakness.”
Maggie can even accompany Maloney to restaurants, but with a large dog, the Maloneys have to be selective about which ones they patronize. Maggie lies on her mat or blanket at Maloney’s feet, under the table, and is trained to keep her tail tucked underneath her so that passersby do not trip on it.
Maggie also accompanies Maloney to nursing homes as a therapy dog, a role she fulfilled before she became a service dog. “She still likes to visit with people,” Maloney said. “I probably allow more public interaction than I should. The kids seem to like her, and I want the children at church to have a positive association with service dogs.”
Maggie free feeds, so at home she eats throughout the day, with her biggest meal typically taking place in the middle of the night. Grooming is a frequent occurrence as well (occurring at least once a week), but sometimes only water is used so as not to dry out her skin. Maloney also checks Maggie’s feet every day to ensure her nails are not too long. “We always change out our bandanas every couple of days,” Maloney said, fingering the patriotic bandana, in honor of the recent Memorial Day holiday, tied around Maggie’s neck. “I like to give her something pretty.”
But, regardless of the day or what outings Maloney has planned, Maggie is on the clock at all times. “She will brace for me,” Maloney said. “We started that years ago [when I would work] in my garden. I put my hands on her shoulders and can support myself coming up. She will walk next to me, and when ankles roll, knees give out, she’s right there. We’ve had a couple of times where she’s been annoying, and I’ll have a pain spasm, so I’m trying to understand what she’s trying to tell me. At the very least, she reminds me to keep things stretched out.”
At night, when Maggie’s day of work is over, the Maloneys head to bed, and Maggie trails after them. The couple used to be staunchly against having pets sleep with them in their bed, but “This one sleeps under the covers with us,” Maloney said. She said Maggie comes to her side and she lifts up the covers for her to climb under.
It is, perhaps, the perfect cozy ending to a doggone long day of work, for both Maloney and Maggie. “While Maggie and I have trained over the last year, I’ve become more positive,” Maloney said. “Since positive reinforcement has been emphasized by my trainers, I find myself offering praise routinely to her in our daily activities, thus living more positively myself. I also hadn’t realized how often I lose my balance when my ankles or knees roll. She’s right there to catch me.”
Despite the learning curve for owner and canine, Maloney has no regrets about training Maggie as a service dog. “There are a few logistical issues,” she said, “but the benefits outweigh the challenges.”
To find a service dog training program in your area, visit Assistance Dogs International at www.assistancedogsinternational.org.