Amy Hadden Marsh
Citizen Telegram Contributor
Rifle, CO Colorado

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October 24, 2012
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Animals in service across U.S., and not just any dog will do

Service animals come in all shapes and sizes, including miniature horses and monkeys.

Lija Day, founder and director of Colorado Service Dogs in Strasburg, said horses serve tall and very big people who need help getting around.

"Most of these people want Great Danes or Blue Mastiffs but they only have about a five-year life span," she said. "Miniature horses live longer."

Capuchin monkeys assist people with spinal cord injuries or other mobility impairments.

The service animal of choice for most people is a dog. But not just any dog.

Day, whose organization trains and places canines with people with mobility and psychological impairments, autism, diabetes and seizure disorders, said she will not work with Arctic-type dogs because they're too high-strung. Guard dog breeds, such as Rottweilers, pit bulls, and Doberman pinschers, carry too much of a stigma and Dalmatians have food issues, she explained.

"Labradors, golden retrievers, standard poodles, and Labradoodles [a cross between a Lab and a poodle] are better because of their temperaments," she said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." It was revised in 2010 to include miniature horses.

Official service animals are considered a working animal, not a pet. And the work or task that the animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to a person's disability.

That means you can't just slap a service animal vest on Fido or another pet and call it good.

"A service dog is medically prescribed by a treating physician and specially trained to perform tasks," said Day.

Service animals are different from therapy animals, whose purpose is provide emotional and physical comfort. They are not task-trained, Day said, nor do they qualify as service animals under the provisions of the ADA.

Service animal tasks include pulling a wheelchair, alerting deaf people of a hazard, alerting epileptics who are about to have a seizure, reminding a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medication, calming someone diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and helping the blind.

In fact, the first official service animal in the United States was a Seeing-Eye® dog. The Seeing Eye, based in Morristown, N.J., was founded in the early 1900s by Morris Frank, who had lost his sight by the age of 16.

In 1927, Frank traveled to Switzerland to work with Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American who trained German Shepherd dogs as guides for blinded World War I veterans.

Frank returned to New York City in 1928 with a fully-trained service dog and was forced to prove the dog's ability in front of reporters, eager to prove him a fake.

"In those days, the streets of New York were crowded, chaotic, and dangerous," said Michelle Barlak, spokesperson for The Seeing Eye. "Morris Frank picked a busy street corner and the dog helped him navigate his way safely across the street, much to the astonishment of the reporters."

Frank founded The Seeing Eye one year later.

Since then, the organization has developed a standard for evaluating hip dysplasia, created a specialized breeding program, and helped research a marker for identifying progressive retinal atrophy, a disease that causes canine blindness.

It has placed more than 15,500 dogs with more than 8,000 people. But, said Barlak, the times - and client needs - have changed.

"There are a lot of new things in our environment that we have to train our dogs for," she explained. Dogs must be prepared for elevators, escalators, airplanes, beeping cell phones and the like.

"Now, it's noisier and there are more distractions," she said.

Seeing Eye training takes four months.

Colorado Service Dogs takes six months to train dogs and match them with owners.

Most dogs also go through a sort of continuing education program throughout their service careers.

Laura Van Dyne, owner of Canine Consultants and longtime instructor at Colorado Mountain College's vet tech program, said the owner's living environment can change, as can human and canine behaviors.

"If problems start, you want to catch them early and take care of them right away," she said.

Training and matching don't come cheap. One Seeing Eye dog costs $60,000. But because The Seeing Eye is well-funded by private donors, "a first-time applicant pays $150 for the dog," explained Barlak. "When that person returns for their next dog, they pay only $50."

Members of the armed forces and veterans get their Seeing Eye dogs for one buck - with a lot of bang. The price includes travel, boarding, training and equipment.

For smaller operations, such as Colorado Service Dogs, which lack the private funding to cover training and matching costs, clients pay $7,000 to $15,000 per dog.

"And it's not covered by insurance," said Day. Colorado Service Dogs offers a monthly payment program, and clients can volunteer in exchange for payments.

Barlak said only a small percentage of the nation's blind population have guide dogs.

"You have to be active," she explained. "The dogs are trained to work and they want to work."

But, said Van Dyne, it's important to remember that service dogs are more than tools. They need time off, just like humans. "If [the dog] is not allowed to have a life, it can become neurotic," she warned. "It can't be a service dog all the time."

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The Post Independent Updated Oct 24, 2012 06:36PM Published Oct 24, 2012 06:32PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.