Everything you ever wanted to know about service dogs – wagging tails and all


I was accompanying a colleague to a concert a year or so ago, when she happened to spot a friend of her’s in the crowd.

“Oh, there’s Joan,” she said to me, indicating a woman taking her seat not far from us. Indeed, Joan was not difficult to miss, for she too, had a companion with her. But despite joining Joan for the concert, the companion had little interest in it, nor would she have had to dress up for the occasion. Have you guessed who Joan’s companion was? She was Talullah, a gorgeous black Labrador retriever service dog, who goes everywhere with her visually impaired handler.

service dog in subway
photo credit: roboppy via photopin cc

Many of us know that service dogs may be admired but not pet or approached in a way we’d approach most other animals. Their function, after all, is to guide and be the eyes, ears or brain of their owners.

During intermission, my colleague and I went over to greet Joan, who turned out to be a lovely lady with a huge smile. I said to her, “I love your dog, but I know that we aren’t supposed to demonstrate any degree of familiarity with a working animal, so I’ll refrain from petting her.” Joan replied: “Oh, Talullah loves people, she wouldn’t mind a bit.” In an instant, my hand was being covered in doggy kisses!

It’s probably impossible to estimate how many dogs there are in service in Canada, but the Lions Foundation of Canada – one of the foremost training facilities in the country – claims that more than 2000 teams have graduated from their organization. Service dogs differ from working or therapy dogs in that their function is to help and guide a specific handler who might have anything from a visual or hearing impairment to a brain injury, mental illness, seizures or autism. There are no breed requirements for service dogs, the only criteria are that they are of good temperament and psychological make-up, are in good health and, most importantly, can be trained easily. For obvious reasons, larger breeds such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have long been preferred due to their size, strength and endurance.

black lab service dog
photo credit: State Farm via photopin cc

 A Mini History

Dorothy Eustis with service dog
Dorothy Eustis and Morris Frank; photo credit: National Women’s History Museum 

Details are hazy as to the origins of service dogs, but it seems they began in post World War I Germany where German Shepherds were trained to provide assistance to those blinded in the conflict. This particular breed was felt to possess a degree of loyalty towards its owner and with it, a strong protective sense. Around the same time, an American woman by the name of Dorothy Eustis heard about the program. She had been training German Shepherds as working dogs and soon began to train them as guides for the blind. Writing about her endeavours in the Saturday Evening Post, Eustis attracted the attention of Morris Frank, a visually impaired man from Nashville who wrote to her asking her to train a dog for him. She did so, and Mr. Frank became the first person to make use of a guide dog. As part of the arrangement, Frank started to train dogs as well, and his efforts blossomed into a foundation dubbed The Seeing Eye.

Training Service Dogs 

The first service dog organization in Canada was the MIRA Foundation, a community-based institution founded in Quebec by Eric St-Pierre in 1981. Each year, MIRA places roughly 150 service dogs with individuals across Canada and around the world. In 1991, MIRA created a guide dog program for visually impaired children, and to date is the only school in the world to provide guide dogs to those under age the age of 15.

At MIRA, the training process begins when puppies are just seven-weeks-old. Once selected, they are placed with a foster family who help them socialize and prepare for guide and service dog training in many different environments. The training family ensures the dog is involved in all its daily routines so that they grow accustomed to navigating places such as shopping malls, public transit and street traffic.

service dogs in training, sitting on steps
photo credit: Beverly & Pack via photopin cc

Once the year–long training period has ended, dogs return to MIRA to continue training with potential handlers. Dogs are matched according to the personality and lifestyle of the new owner.

Joan, a retired librarian, acquired Tallullah (or Mrs. T) from the Oregon-based Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB). Joan chose GDB because she says its training program uses positive reinforcement and there is ongoing staff support once the handler training is complete. At the outset, Joan spent considerable time with Talullah, so that they could get to know each other. In the end, the lovable Mrs. T seemed a perfect match.

Man walking service dog
photo credit: smerikal via photopin cc

Joan wrote about their life together after her retirement:

Since April 2010, Tallulah and I have had many adventures and travelled to Paris, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, London, Oxford, and Dublin.  She has a European Passport and logs passport stamps just as I do.  We returned at the end of the summer to Oxford and stayed at the same place we stayed at two years ago.  She remembered and recognized the places we had visited.  With a tilt of her head, she would ask, “Would you like to go here?”

Tallulah has given me a measure of freedom that I did not have before.  She is the closest thing to seeing!  I can walk with freedom, take the subway (she finds me a seat), walk on to a plane with her, attend concerts, and go shopping (she finds my favourite departments and sales staff).  I did all of these things before, but Tallulah makes it easy!

As we’ve all seen, service dogs are sturdy, friendly and fiercely loyal to their human companions. Yes, they may look eager for a pat or a hug, but they’re there to do a job and fulfill a role. And contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t only for the severely impaired or for those at the end of a life-threatening illness.

Many people, including brain injury survivors, find the use of a service dog invaluable, helping to make their lives easier with the aim at achieving the ultimate goal of self -sufficiency. During their 100 year history, service dogs have been the eyes, ears, nose, legs and brains of their handlers, providing invaluable, and in some cases, life-saving assistance. Long may they continue to help those who need it, they’re most definitely more than just a friendly bark or a wagging tail!

Think you’d like a service dog? Stay tuned for our up-coming post on ‘How to get a service dog in Ontario’