I am a person who is totally blind. I use a dog guide. Wilson is a 7½ year old black lab. He can be correctly described as a seeing eye dog, as he is a graduate of that school. “Seeing eye dog” is actually not a generic term, though it is often used erroneously that way.
Service animals work helping people who live with PTSD, very low vision, blindness, very limited hearing, deafness, autism, diabetes, epilepsy, and medical support such as assisting those in wheelchairs. Service animals could be canine officers supporting police, search and rescue, and the like.
One cannot assume the dog’s role or the handler’s situation. Different training schools may also adapt different strategies for their teams, so partnerships do not look the same and persons getting a successive service animal, won’t appear to work the same as they did with a prior dog. Additional factors such as age and maturity of the partnership, personality, specific needs, and changing needs of the handler/partner are all factors.
An animal trained to serve a child or adult with diabetes will alert its handler when blood sugar is too high or low, may be trained to pull open the refrigerator door and retrieve the diabetic kit and run it to the handler, or to alert loved ones.
A dog that serves someone with autism may be offering a reassuring calmness or possibly helping a child who has a tendency to run to stay within safe boundaries. Seizure alert dogs can give an alert prior to the seizure and help position their seizing handler more safely. A hearing ear dog will get the attention of their handler when it hears the handler’s name being called, hears a doorbell at their home, or hears the baby is crying.
A service animal supporting someone using a wheelchair might help stabilize their handler in a transfer from a wheelchair to chair, bed, or toilet. The dog can use its body to help a person reposition. Such service animals can be trained to push automatic door openers, open doors, turn on or off light switches, retrieve a dropped object, even to help pull a manual wheelchair.
A service animal supporting a person with Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder offers consistent physical presence and reassurance, even alerting the handler when the service animal notices their handler becoming anxious. Service animals, whatever their work, are highly skilled and trained, offering their handlers increased opportunities for independence and freedom.
Not petting the dog when the harness is on, not talking to it, not making eye contact, and not feeding it require lots of reminders. People still do try these things, maybe even while stating “I know I shouldn’t….”
My guide dog needed to learn to navigate elementary school hallways with 700 children, to be comfortable hanging out in a busy classroom, and to work safely outside of our classroom in spaces where I was supervising children at nutrition breaks.
While being comfortable navigating in the school, my particular guides also need to be comfortable in the sanctuary, at ease with music being played in close proximity, and be able to deal with highly emotional times. The dog needs to be comfortable visiting a variety of places, from people’s homes to hospitals and long-term care facilities. A corridor of classrooms of young children is very different from a business corridor of offices, or a hospital corridor in a secure unit of persons with high needs. It is a different world again when my service animal navigates me as a student taking courses, or leading conference or workshop events, or guiding me through errands, shopping, and appointments, in social gatherings, or when on outings with my family.
In my case, the matching process between dog and handler had lots of variables for the trainers to be aware of. The best match for me would look very different from that of another candidate. Wilson is my fifth guide dog and each dog has been very different in temperament, personality, working style, their likes, and the ways they have individually determined to communicate with me.
A consistency for me — from my first guide, a faithful boxer who led me through those first months of losing my remaining sight teaching full time and raising our young children, beginning my M.Div., through to working Wilson today — is that the working harness has become a symbol of faith, trust, independence, interdependence, and hope. It also works well in those exercises when you are asked to bring some symbol of your own faith journey, your gifts, or some strength. It’s not like I ever forget it! My service animal is an extension of me.
— Sharon Ballantyne is ministry personnel, serving a rural pastoral charge about two hours northeast of Toronto. A 2018 McGeachy Senior scholar, her work is focusing on equity. You can reach her by sharon.ballantyne [at] gmail.com (email).
Learn more about Disability Ministries in The United Church of Canada.