International Assistance Dog Week (August 4-10) came and went and I didn’t have the energy to post this in time, but here it is anyway: the answers to the most frequently asked questions I get about my service dog.
Keep in mind that the answers to these questions are specific to me and my dog, the organization I work with, and the country I live in (the Netherlands). So things might not be the same for you! If you live in the US and need advice on service dogs, please contact somebody else as I have limited knowledge on how things work overseas.
- Nugget is a Golden Retriever. Her breeder is Bentivar.
- She’s in training to become an autism service dog.
- I got her when she was 7.5 weeks old. She is now almost 10 months old.
- I train her myself with the help of a service dog trainer (more on that later). We work with Stichting SAAC.
Make sure to follow Nugget on Instagram to stay up-to-date on our adventures and training progress!
Why do you need a service dog?
I’m autistic, which for me basically means that I am extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli (sounds, sights, smells, touch, taste, temperature, movement, emotions, etc.), have trouble with social interaction, am very rigid in certain habits, and am stressed pretty much all the time. I say “for me”, because autism presents differently in different people.
To give you an idea of what sensory processing disorder is like: compared to a neurotypical (non-autistic) person’s experience in, say, a supermarket, every sensation is 10 times louder, brighter, more painful, and generally more intense.
Over the years, I have also been diagnosed with a whole bunch of mental disorders: an anxiety disorder, depression, ARFID, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, and a history of trauma. I’m currently awaiting an ADHD diagnosis.
I consider myself disabled because I’m not able to do many of the things I’d like to do and see my peers doing. I can’t go to school, keep a job, or travel. I rely very much on carers, coaches, and my parents. Nugget is the only reason I can live independently. Although it may look like it from my YouTube videos, I don’t actually do that much and need days to recover from most activities.
Note: not every service dog handler is as open about their disability as I am, and they don’t owe you any information. Never ask a stranger with a service dog why they need one! It is none of your business.
[You may also enjoy: My One Year Autism Diagnosis Anniversary]
What does your service dog do for you?
At the moment, because she’s still very young (9 months old as of writing this), Nugget is mostly my companion. She goes with me everywhere, and her presence makes me feel calmer and less susceptible to sensory overload. The sensory stimuli around me don’t bother me as much when I have her as a focus point. She also helps me with keeping a healthy daily routine through frequent walks & training sessions and set feeding times & bedtime. Lately, she has been pulling me out of hyperfocus a bunch of times without it being a trained task.
We’ve started working on Deep Pressure Therapy, which means she distributes her weight across my lap or my chest, which calms me down. Like a weighted blanket, but cuter and you take it everywhere with you!
Other tasks she’ll be learning will be to protect my personal space, finding exits, stopping harmful behavior (such as picking at my nails until they bleed, pulling out my hair, and self-harm), and most importantly: alerting me when I’m nearing sensory overload or a panic attack. I don’t notice that my stress levels are rising until it’s too late and I have to spend days in bed to recover, so having Nugget alert me means I can take the necessary precautions to take a step back.
What kinds of service dogs are there?
There are dogs for…
- guiding blind or visually impaired people (guide dogs)
- assisting people who have balance/mobility/other medical issues, like people in wheelchairs (mobility/service dogs)
- alerting their epileptic handler of seizures, their diabetic handler of hypos & hypers, their deaf/hard-of-hearing handler of important sounds (alert dogs)
- supporting people with autism, PTSD, or other psychiatric disorders (psychiatric service dogs)
There are so many different types of service dogs so I may have forgotten a few!
Important to note: If you ever see someone with a service dog who does not look visibly disabled, don’t assume they’re just training the dog! Not all disabilities are visible.
What is the training process like?
I work with a service dog organization that specifically trains autism service dogs. A trainer comes to my house every month or so to go through the list of things Nugget needs to be able to do for her next exam, and we practise those tasks and commands. Luckily I am able to train by myself as well, so my trainer mostly just gets me started and I then work my ass off until we’ve mastered another task.
There are three exams/certificates in total. Every year there’s an exam day, and in September we’ll try for our first certificate, which I’m confident we’ll receive. We’ll also try for our second, which may be harder because PUBERTY.
Next to the service dog training, we also frequent the local dog training school and learn a lot from books and YouTube videos. I spend a lot of my free time training, whether that’s cute tricks like “shake” or more important commands like “up” (Deep Pressure Therapy). Cute tricks may seem useless but the frequent training sessions are very important for bonding, plus I get to show off our skills as an icebreaker in social situations!
What is it like to be in public with a service dog?
Most of the time I wear noise-cancelling headphones so I don’t notice a lot of the reactions I get. But when I’m out with a friend and/or don’t wear my headphones, we get a lot of attention. Some of the things we hear on a weekly basis:
- “Dogs aren’t allowed here”, “Is that a service dog?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”, “You don’t look disabled”, “Are you blind?”, “Where is your cane?”
- (to dog) “I’m not allowed to pet you so I’m not going to!”
- “Is she in training?”, “It’s so noble of you to spend your time training a service dog for some disabled person!”
So yeah, it can be quite exhausting. But it’s gotten a lot easier now that she doesn’t look like a puppy anymore. Sometimes we are approached when I’m anxious/overloaded/non-verbal and for those situations I have printed out little notes that answer the most frequently asked questions I get in public. It also has her Instagram handle on it so they can learn more.
Why am I not allowed to pet service dogs?
When you pet or distract a service dog, they can’t focus on their handler and alert them. Missing an alert could mean a service dog handler gets severely injured and in extreme situations, can even result in death.
Luckily it’s not as serious for me: if you distract my service dog, the worst thing that can happen is that she might not be able to help me when I am overloaded or have a panic attack. Still, it’s important that she knows that vest on = work time, so focusing on me and only me. I do let my parents and some friends interact with her when we’re going somewhere together, as long as Nugget stays focused.
When you choose to ignore the patches on the vest and pet or distract a service dog, you are essentially saying: “My entertainment needs are more important than your health.”
In short: do not distract service dogs. That means no petting, no talking to the dog, no looking them in the eyes.
Yes, much of their training is about not getting distracted by the general public, but they’re still dogs and not robots.
Does she ever get time off?
Of course! Although we are working on her keeping an eye on me even during off-leash walks, when she’s not wearing her vest she’s off work (and is allowed to be pet!).
I’m still impressed by how quickly Nugget’s behavior changes when I put on her vest — she turns into a completely different dog. We trained this from when she was 8 weeks old so it’s always been this way for her! When she’s off, she’s the biggest attention whore I’ve ever seen, and when she’s working she’s extremely focused on me and eager for more tasks.
We often go on long walks and in the summer she gets to swim almost every day, which she loves! When I go see friends, I almost always bring her along and she loves the attention!
When she’s off, I often hear people jokingly say “I still can’t believe that’s a service dog”, and although I understand it’s meant to be funny, service dogs are not robots and many of them get to be playful and excited when they’re off — especially when they’re as young as Nugget is.
How was Nugget selected?
I really wanted a dark Golden Retriever, so when I came across her breeder, I actually waited over a year for Nugget’s mom Sem to have a litter. I could have just gone with any other breeder and get my puppy a lot sooner, but after having met these people (and Nugget’s mom & grandma), it felt so right that it was worth waiting for. To mentally prepare myself, it was important for me to visit the puppies as much as possible (about once a week), and they were super nice about it and very accommodating of my needs.
When the puppies were 6 weeks old, we went to the breeder to watch the puppy test. Two professional ‘puppy testers’ tested every single of the 9 puppies on personality, temperament, how quickly they recovered after a scare, that kind of stuff. Our top two were Yellow and Purple, which I both loved but I had a soft spot for Yellow… which turned out to be Nugget!
Does she enjoy the work?
I obviously can’t ask her, but knowing what I know about dog body language, I’m pretty sure she does. If she really doesn’t want to do something, she won’t. But once she gets into training/work mode, she has the happiest smile on her little face and is constantly eager for more tasks.
Giving a working breed dog a job to do is the best thing you can do to make them happy. Not all dogs want to be service dogs, and not all breeds are suitable, but even teaching your (working breed) pet dog to carry something for you can make their day!
Why does your dog wear shoes?
She doesn’t always wear shoes, but when she does it’s because it’s either so hot outside that the pavement will burn her paws (try standing barefeet on hot asphalt when it’s 35°C out!) or it’s so cold that there’s snow & ice, and the salt used to melt the ice can burn/irritate her paws.
When you have a pet dog and it’s over 30° C outside, you can just choose to not walk them during the hottest time of day. But when you rely on your service dog and have an appointment, shoes are your friend! We only use them for short bits of time because dogs sweat through their paws.
I also bring them with me when we go to a big city where there’s often a lot of glass on the ground.
How do I get myself a service dog?
This depends on a number of factors, like the country you live and what kind of disability you have. In my country, you approach a service dog organization and if you’re disabled and have the money (or if insurance will cover it, which it often doesn’t) and are responsible enough to care for a dog, you can get started.
However, before applying for a service dog, I would urge you to try everything else first. For those of you that are like me (autism/psychiatric disability), that means medication, coaching, different types of therapy. Getting a service dog is not something you do lightly because 1) it drastically changes every aspect of your life, 2) owner-training can be very tough, and 3) service dogs are extremely expensive. The total training costs can be anywhere between €8000 – €30.000 depending on what kind of service dog you require and whether you train it yourself or get them pre-trained.
Another thing to consider: if you’re looking for a psychiatric/autism service dog, first consider whether you really are stable enough to do this, especially if you’ll have to raise the dog from puppyhood. It’s a bit weird because you obviously need a service dog to stay mentally stable, but you also need to be mentally stable to care for the dog. I know a few people who share the responsibility of care & training with their parents or partner, so that’s also an option if your loved ones are open to that.
In the end, if you are disabled, a service dog can be a lifesaving thing and is worth all the hard times raising and training a puppy. If Nugget was taken away from me now, I know I would lose all the progress I’ve made in the past few years. She gives me something to live for.
If you have any more questions, feel free to ask me! E-mail is best, but Instagram messaging or sending a tweet my way is also okay.
Videos to check out
- Dog Days at LLBean Aautism Assistance Dog Demonstration by TGPDigital
- The REAL Reason You CAN’T Touch Service Dogs! by Molly Burke
- 10 Worst Things About Having A Guide Dog by Molly Burke
- S#!t People Say to Autistic Service Dog Partners by Nathan Selove
- Lady Harasses Me and My Service Dog At Breakfast by Drew Lynch
- How To Stop People From Petting Your Dog by Drew Lynch