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Amy F. Quincy Author/Freelance Writer

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service dogs

Canine Cousins (Twice Removed)

130301_0008Frankie is officially a service dog.

I realize that’s laughable to those of you who really know him, but nevertheless, he is a service dog. And before you ask — no, he doesn’t do anything for me. He doesn’t pick up dropped items (unless it’s food and that’s to eat it). He can’t open any doors. And on public transportation, he’s more likely to climb over me trying to stick his head out the window than sit quietly beside me. If I fell out of the wheelchair, he’d probably look at me like “Now what?” instead of getting help. The idea of having a service dog that doesn’t actually provide a service used to bother me. Until now.

Several weeks ago, some friends and I attended the ceremony of what is, in essence, a service dog school. We watched the “puppies” (usually a year and a half old) matriculate into the training program and fully trained dogs graduate out. These dogs were the real deal. Imagine having close to 50 dogs in one building with no barking. Granted, they all looked alike (black or golden, labs or retrievers). And you wouldn’t want to try to pick these pups out of a police line up. But then, you wouldn’t have to. These were well-behaved dogs.

At the Ceremony
At the Ceremony

At first, I watched sheepishly, imagining my own “service dog” going ballistic in the place, barking at other dogs and jumping up on people. These dogs seemed to have nothing in common with Frankie. They were all distant (very distant) relatives. But as I watched a video presentation, I realized most of the receipients of these “real service dogs” didn’t have tasks on the top of their lists either. Most of these (mainly) special needs children just wanted a friend. And the parents of these children wanted to help them socialize with other children. To help them not feel so alone.

Dogs can do that.

I was fortunate enough to have an able-bodied childhood. To not meet with disability until I was well into my thirties. But even so, I can relate. I can relate to being the odd man out, to stares, or even worse, avoidance. And that’s just in the adult world! Children can be so much worse. Even I was scared of them, gunning my power chair past their school bus stop near my house. Until, I went by with Frankie.

Dogs are the great equalizers. The kids were so busy petting Frankie and asking questions, they didn’t seem to notice I was in a wheelchair. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have been approached by half the neighbors I know, without him by my side. Plus, I know I wouldn’t be getting out as much.

So, I recognize there’s a huge value in companionship. Of service dogs that don’t complete tasks. And of little guys like Frankie. But, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that every woman with a toy poodle in her purse run out and get a doctor’s note to take Fido (or Fifi) everywhere. Though Frankie can accompany me most places, I’m only planning on taking him to the pier. He’ll be the one in the blue vest, barking at the birds.

Not a Service Dog

Believe it or not, Frankie could’ve been a service dog. Well, I don’t know that he would’ve made it all the way through training or graduated, but he was accepted. He had the right temperament and personality. Or so it was determined.

Years ago, preferring to adopt a homeless animal rather than support a breeder, I began looking for an organization that trains rescue service dogs. There aren’t many. With so specialized and special a mission, apparently it’s better to know an animal’s parents and history. After much looking, I was left with one immediate option (and not a very good one.) Train Frankie. First, he would need to be evaluated in a class.

After barging in late, Frankie leading the way, I handed over the leash to the instructor. She took Frankie around to meet the other dogs, all of whom outweighed Frankie by at least 50 pounds. After passing that test (he wasn’t timid or aggressive, but invited everyone to play,) she threw metal food bowls to land near his head. Instead of being scared or nervous about the clanging bowls, Frankie checked them all for food. She called his name to make sure he knew it, pulled his tail to make sure he wouldn’t growl and gave him treats to see how food motivated he was. (I could’ve answered that one.) In the end, he was cleared for take-off. The instructor called him happy-go-lucky. I think Mom and I were just excited to get that little “service-dog-in-training” vest.

Now I laugh to think of Frankie as an assistant to the handicapped. In fact, I’ve compiled a list (by all means not exhaustive) of the things Frankie does that a service dog would never do. A service dog would never:

…chase a cat.

…bolt through the door at the slightest opening.

…use the couch to roll about and dry off dew after a walk.

…chase a leaf.

…run across the front of a moving power wheelchair to bark at another dog.

…eat ants.

…bark and growl at lizards like they’re dangerous intruders.

…bark and growl at his own reflection.

…eat cat poo.

…walk on top of tables and counters.

…eat birthday cake.

Unfazed by chocolate

For Need of a Dog

"My pain in the butt:" Photo by Bruce Macfarlane

Every disabled person should own a dog. I can hear friends laughing now because, in the past, I’ve been such a die hard cat person. Frankie has changed all that.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think dogs are a pain in the butt. They need to be entertained more than cats. They need to be exercised. Let out. They’re more destructive. More vacuum-like when it comes to food. They’re louder. Messier. More demanding. You can’t take a three-day weekend with ease. The list goes on and on.

In other words, having Frankie isn’t something I would’ve ever signed up for. Sometimes, the universe doesn’t give you what you want, it gives you what you need.

I’ve realized how caring for Frankie has expanded my world. I know a lot more people. Particularly in my neighborhood. It makes life more enjoyable. Imagine being out and about and everyone waves or nods. Even if I’m not actually with Frankie. Just yesterday, I was at the grocery store when a man said, “It just seems wrong, seeing you without your little dog.” It’s like the Cheers song, (yes, I know I’m dating myself,) but you do want to be where everybody knows your name. Okay, so most of these neighbors don’t actually know my name. The other day walking him, a man hollered out his window, “Hey, Frankie!” to which I waved and yelled, “Hi!”

"Not Holing up:" Michele walks me and Frankie

I’m outside a lot more. I don’t “isolate” myself (as my mother would say.) Without twice daily dog walks, I might be holed up for days on end with my computer and my cat. Instead, the tires on my power chair are actually bald. I need new tires. I hope I don’t have to brake suddenly.

Frankie also bridges the gap between the disabled and the able-bodied. I’m probably a lot more approachable in my wheelchair with him by my side. I’m just guessing here, but it’s reasonable to assume that I’m the only disabled person many of my neighbors have ever talked to. It’s good for everyone. Able-bodied folks can gain awareness and I gain a little self-esteem. For those five minutes discussing the weather or comparing flea medication, I’m not so different.

And service dogs? The benefits seem endless. In fact, I feel guilty just writing it so shhh, but when Frankie … umm… you know… gets to eat people food and run around leash free, I want to get a service dog. Of course, there’s nothing funny about a perfectly behaved dog is there? Maybe I’ll stick to inspirational and endearing misbehavers.

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