Training My Service Dog: Belle Star, a Dog with a Job -The Toast

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So often, the most important events in our lives happen by chance. Maybe you take an Econ class at 10am instead of at 3pm and meet your future spouse. Maybe you miss a flight, but then sit next to a person who changes your life on the new flight. I might not have met my husband at our freshman orientation weekend if my best friend hadn’t talked me into going. It was a similar happy accident that led me to finding my service dog, Belle Starr, this past February.

I didn’t know I needed a service dog, but I did.

We were snowed in and my husband just happened to turn on Dogs with Jobs on Netflix. (This is a good show to watch if you like to cry and also like dogs.) The very first one we watched featured a Bernese Mountain dog who had been trained to pull a boy’s wheelchair to school and complete other tasks in his service. Then we saw a Golden Retriever watch over a woman who suffered from seizures. “I need a service dog!” I told my husband, only half-joking. I am disabled; I thought having a service dog to help me pick things up from the floor, assist with my balance, and get help should I fall would be very helpful indeed.

Not long after watching that episode, I received a copy of Neurology Now magazine containing an article about service dogs by Natalie Pompilio:

Besides fetching items or opening doors, therapy and service dogs that work with people with MS can also be taught to turn on lights, pull wheelchairs, and provide support for people who feel unsteady on their feet, says Rosalind Kalb, PhD, vice president, Healthcare Information and Resources, for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “For people whose balance is poor, the biggest benefit is the comfort and reassurance about safety,” she says. “And as with all pets, the dogs help people feel less isolated and alone.”

As I read the article, I felt like the universe was sending me a message. Why shouldn’t I have a dog to help me?

My neurologist once chided me for resisting things that would make my life easier. When she signed the DMV form for a handicapped parking permit two years after I became disabled, she said, “You don’t have to be a stoic, you know. You don’t get extra points for suffering.”

For a while I resisted the idea of getting a service dog. Was I handicapped enough? My eminently rational husband pointed out there was no prescribed severity of handicappedness to get a service dog. Unspoken between us was the guarantee that my disease would progress (there is no cure) and the likelihood of me becoming progressively more handicapped. A service dog would not only make my life easier, but happier as well. Why not?

When I started to study service dogs, I learned that dogs have always had jobs. There is a whole category at the Westminster Dog Show for Working Dogs. The earliest depiction of a guide dog is in a mural (from A.D. 79) of a dog leading a blind man in Pompeii. After that there are occasional references to guide dogs in history and literature. The earliest handbook on how to train a guide dog was published in 1819.

But what surprised me the most is that it took thousands of years for us to realize dogs’ full potential as helpers. It wasn’t until the 1920s that people began seriously training guide dogs, primarily due to the plethora of veterans blinded by the use of mustard gas in WWI. Demand for trained guide dogs became so great there was a shortage. When the German Shepherd Dog Foundation was established in 1923, their school developed many of the guide dog training techniques still used today.

We are all familiar with seeing eye dogs, but only relatively recently were dogs trained to do more than guide people who are blind or visually impaired. Dogs can be trained to turn on lights, open doors, remind people to take their medicine on time, warn people about seizures and other medical emergencies, call for help, help children stay out of dangerous situations, and complete many other tasks. Here is one example from the Neurology Now article:

The aptly named golden retriever was bred and trained by 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit agency in Xenia, OH. When Hunter has a seizure, Specht says Angel barks to alert nearby adults before cuddling with “her boy” to comfort him. Because Hunter has trouble walking, Angel knows to walk slowly by his side so he can hold her vest for stability. Hunter, now 5, is in kindergarten, and Angel lies beside his desk each day. Specht can sleep at night, knowing Angel’s on watch.

These dogs are such good caretakers they remind me of J.M. Barrie’s Nana. We laughed at the thought of a dog nursemaid in Peter Pan, but there are dogs trained to act as real-life Nanas now.

My husband was immediately in favor of getting a service dog for me, and together we began searching for a likely candidate. As there is high demand, a limited supply of trained dogs, and long waiting lists, we decided to get a puppy and train her ourselves. It takes many years to get a trained dog — why not have the fun of raising one from a puppy?

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows you to train your own service dog. But every state has different requirements, and the process is unregulated. Many disabled people do not have the resources I do, and there needs to be a better way. The definition of a “service dog” can be confusing for some; people often confuse service animals with therapy animals, comfort animals, and others. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides protections for a very specific kind of dog:

Service Animal Defined by Title II and Title III of the ADA. A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

The most popular breeds of dogs for service work are Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers because of their reliability, but many other kinds of dogs would work; there are no breed restrictions. Demand is high for good puppies from reputable breeders. I wanted a dog from a good family with a proven reputation, since we would be investing a lot of time and money in training her. We started looking for Golden Retrievers, mainly because Jim had met a neighbor of ours with beautiful, well-trained Goldens. Jim had written to some well-regarded breeders, but they all had long waiting lists — and then fate or my guardian angel intervened, and one of the breeders contacted us due to a cancellation. By chance, she would be in nearby Maryland just a couple days before my birthday. Jim went to meet her, and Belle Starr came home with him.


Goldens are so beautiful that at first you might not see how intelligent they are. When TV producers want to tug on our heartstrings with cute puppies, what do they get? Golden Retrievers. When Jim brought Belle home and gave her to me, it was love at first sight.

When we had dogs before we just gave them basic training, but we knew Belle would need much more than that to do her job. Take even a cursory look at modern dog training methods and you’ll see that dog training might be the only subject more controversial than child rearing. There are the Monks of New Skete, Cesar Milan, the dog clicker people, various sensible British women, and hundreds of others, and each has a different method.

I read every book I could find on the subject, and discovered a surprising fact: there were hardly any books by or about someone like me. There are basic and advanced dog training books, but I could only find one book written by a disabled person who had trained their own dog. Feeling like pioneers, Jim and I made up a plan for Belle’s training based on our research and what we learned talking to professionals. We would model our plan on the schedule of professional service dog trainers, which meant that for Belle’s first year we would focus on obedience training and good manners, only more so.

Belle beginning her "stacking" training, part of becoming a balance dog. Belle beginning her “stacking” training, part of becoming a balance dog.

A good service dog has to like people and be undaunted in public, so we began by taking Belle out and around with us after the vet gave us the all-clear. She took the puppy class at the Old Town School for Dogs and passed with flying colors. When Belle’s trainer remarked on her intelligence, good manners, and confidence, I was just as proud as when my actual children won awards at school (of course MY dog would be the Hermione of dogs!). Belle’s trainer stressed that we needed to let Belle learn to use her own good judgment in a variety of situations.

Now we take her everywhere so she will get used to noise, crowds, and city streets. She loved meeting the kids at nearby Mount Vernon, and has thus far shown no fear of cannons, thunderstorms, boat rides, livestock, cats, or other dogs. Belle is already great at carrying things, picking up dropped keys, and fetching shoes, but when it comes to slippers she doesn’t like to give them back. (She’s only five months old though, so we will work on this.) This summer Belle will take more obedience classes, and after that we’ll get a more specialized trainer to build on her obedience training and help her learn to do more complicated tasks.

Before I was disabled, I never thought much about how difficult it is for disabled people to navigate the abled world. The ramps on sidewalks and automatic doors make life easier for everyone, not just people like me, but we could do so much more. There are still many places I can’t go; many older buildings have areas that have never been retrofitted for disabled access. I often worry about being in a high-rise in an emergency. How would I walk down flights of stairs without an elevator? The challenges will never go away entirely, but I do worry less now that I have my own service dog. I’m very happy that Belle is in my life, and I look forward to our partnership as we both learn together.

Training service dogs is expensive; it takes several years of specialized training after basic obedience classes. As this isn’t covered by Social Security disability benefits, most disabled people would find it difficult or impossible to buy and train a service dog. Dogs are also expensive, with vet care, proper food, and other costs. I am the rare disabled person who has a full-time job; the majority of disabled people would have trouble supporting the very dog that would make their lives easier.

Disability can be socially isolating. A dog can help people get out in the world, work, be independent, and pursue the lives they want to lead. Yet it seems as if the people who need a dog the most are the people who cannot afford one — I’ve seen several GoFundMe sites requesting help in obtaining a service dog. It’s incredibly inefficient that we leave this important work to a patchwork of charities, and force disabled people without the means to bear the costs of finding and keeping a service dog. I’ll be writing my senators and representative about this issue, and Belle and I hope we can inspire others to do the same.


Additional Reading:

Service Dogs and the Americans with Disabilities Act

FAQ: Service Dogs and the ADA

International Guide Dog Federation: A History of Guide Dogs

Kathleen Cooper is a writer from Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Airship, The Washington Post, and Medium. When she isn't rooting for the California Golden Bears, she designs textile art, reads cookbooks in bed, and wrangles two cats, a golden retriever, and her husband.

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