Multiple sclerosis (MS) can make even the most mundane tasks difficult. Opening a door, getting dressed, or even turning on a light switch can seem Herculean on your bad days.
Hiring a nurse can be expensive, and you may not need all of the services they provide. If you could use help with just the basics, you may want to consider getting a service dog.
Service dogs are trained to assist people with physical or emotional disabilities.
You’ll often see Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers in this role. These breeds are well-suited to the job because they’re smart, friendly, and adept at picking things up. Hunters and fishers have long relied on Labrador and Golden retrievers to retrieve items, hence the name. Other breeds are used as service dogs, too. For instance, poodles and German shepherds.
Service dogs are trained to follow dozens of commands. They can do many tasks people with MS need help with, such as:
- picking up items from the floor
- grabbing things out of cabinets and drawers (they open drawers and doors by pulling on a rope tied around the handle)
- pulling a wheelchair
- opening doors
- removing clothing
- turning light switches on and off
- acting as a brace to prevent you from falling when you stand up or walk
- summoning help during an emergency
- reminding you to take your medication
These dogs also provide emotional support. They know how to comfort you when you’re having a bad day.
A service dog can help out at home, and when you go out. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows people to take their service dogs into public places like supermarkets, restaurants, buses, and subways.
You can get a service dog in one of three ways:
- Buy or rescue a dog from a shelter and train it yourself. This may be hard if you don’t have experience training an animal.
- Get a dog from a breeder or pet shop and hire a professional trainer to teach it commands.
- Go to an organization that trains dogs for people with MS. Some of these dogs come from breeders or families, while others are rescued from shelters.
To find an accredited service dog organization in your area, visit Assistance Dogs International.
To qualify for a dog, you’ll need to meet certain requirements, which could include:
- being over a certain age (for example, 14)
- being able to participate in the training
- being able to care for and handle your service dog
- living in a stable home environment
- not having another dog in the house
The service dog application process is similar to applying for a job. The organization will have you fill out a detailed application that includes questions about your health and living situation. They may ask for personal recommendations from your doctor, friends, and co-workers. You’ll then be interviewed.
If you make it through the entire process and get approved, you’ll likely be put on a waiting list. Service dog organizations have many more applications than available animals. You may need to wait up to four years until a dog becomes available. Finding and training your own dog can expedite the process.
Raising and training a service dog is expensive. Some private organizations charge anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 for a dog.
Other agencies will say their dogs are “free” or “no cost” to the recipient, which means donations fund the cost. Though you won’t have to pay anything, you may be asked to raise a portion of the cost of your dog.
Your financial responsibility doesn’t end once you pay for the dog. You’ll also have to pay for food, bedding and grooming supplies, and veterinarian bills, among other expenses. Service dogs require more care than pets because they have additional responsibilities.
The service dog organization you choose will carefully match you with a dog that best fits your needs, personality, and lifestyle. Once you’ve been matched with a dog, it will need to be trained.
First, a trainer will spend a few months teaching the dog all the skills you’ve requested. Then, you’ll join the training process. You may have to visit the organization’s facility for a few days to train with your dog. During this time, you’ll have to miss work. You may also need to pay for travel expenses.
The dog will eventually come home with you for more training. You’ll learn how to handle and care for it. Once you feel comfortable giving commands and your service dog responds to them appropriately, the dog will be yours. But the training won’t end there. You’ll continue to teach your dog new skills on an almost daily basis.
A service dog can be an invaluable companion and a big help with everyday tasks. The cost and time involved can be obstacles to getting a service dog, but many organizations will help you navigate through the process and cover the costs.