This blog post was written by Erin Purgason, Founder and Chair of Highland Canine Connect. In this article, Erin looks at the importance of providing service dogs for people of all ages, and how her perspective on this has changed over the years.
Let’s face it, nothing may be as adorable as kids and dogs. When they are combined, many of us enter the “cuteness overload” zone. The service dog community thrives through bringing children and dogs together, in a life changing, inspirational way that melts hearts. This has become the focal point of many service dog providers, and I must admit that there was a time when my company was the same way. The more time I spend in this division of dog training, however, the more I realize how many others are overlooked. The service dog industry relies almost exclusively on providing service dogs to children – but children aren’t the only people to need one.
I have been there, and understand: as a parent, it is your job to help and advocate for your child. Who else will? When parents are faced with the news that their child is suffering from a physical or mental disability, brain trauma or degenerative disease, it is normal to enter right into “detective mode.” How could you not? Parents experiencing this typically find themselves constantly searching through thousands of pages of internet rubbish, probing doctors, interrogating therapists and desperately seeking help from social media support groups. “Is there anything that will help my child move forward, live their life fully and eventually gain the independence they need to follow their dreams in the future?”
I have witnessed firsthand that service dogs can be a fantastic tool for some families. That is why our company has an extensive application process: to make absolutely certain that a service dog will be an asset and not a burden on the families we are providing them to. I can attest to the countless benefits that a service dog can have in the life of a child living with a disability. It has not gone without notice, however, that our teens, young adults, and adult communities are oftentimes outshined by the little ones.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of service dog training companies, both for profit and nonprofit, that refuse to let families or individuals apply if the applicant is over the age of 10 or 12 years old. Some of my most memorable service dog deliveries have been with those where the applicant is in high school or college. These individuals in the age group where they are desperately yearning for independence – even if they can’t verbalize it. They are embarrassed to hold mom and dad’s hand and desire to be amongst their peers, even if only occasionally. Combine this with raging hormones and the awkward physiological transformations which occur through these years and it is easy to see how things can become frustrating.
We have seen that most applicants in this age group appreciate and long to handle a service dog when possible. Suddenly, they gain a sense of purpose and learn to embrace responsibility when they are patiently guided and considerately taught how to care for their dog.
Over a decade and a half ago, I remember getting phone calls from potential clients and/or their caretakers in their 60’s and 70’s wanting a fully trained service dog. Sadly, I had this pre-conceived notion that they were simply “too old” to handle and maintain a service dog. I would think, “Who will help them?” “What if they get knocked down?” “Will the dog get enough exercise?”… “What if they die?” I was too quick to play “Judge Judy,” quickly dismissing the idea of providing them with a service dog – before I learned about the life challenges that all kinds of people go through, regardless of age. I realized that the majority of disabled elderly individuals have someone watching them or checking up on them. I also realized that the eagerness to maintain independence doesn’t simply go away as we get older. Just like with our younger clients, our extensive application process confirms if a service dog will truly help our senior citizens have a better quality of life or if it would create a burden for our applicant.
Life can change in the blink of an eye; the life we may have been living for years can collapse in a matter of seconds. Tragic car accidents, strokes, aneurisms, cancer, tick borne viruses, life changing head trauma… all of these things and so much more can happen to anyone – at any age. As service dog trainers, it is our responsibility to think outside the box for our dogs and showcase how they can truly improve one’s life – regardless of age.