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Narcolepsy is a lifelong condition, often beginning in the mid-teenage years. The condition is marked by excessive daytime sleepiness and often one or more of the following symptoms:

  • cataplexy, which is a loss of muscle tone in response to intense emotions (such as excitement and fear)
  • hallucinations, which can be hypnagogic (at the beginning of the night) or hypnopompic (on awakening) and seem real
  • vivid dream imagery
  • sleep paralysis, which are episodes of awakening without being able to move, often during a dream

Narcolepsy presents a lot of challenges, but you don’t have to face them on your own. In addition to the many resources provided by narcolepsy organizations, support can sometimes come in a furry, four-legged package.

Narcolepsy service dogs aren’t right for everyone. But when they’re a good fit, they can

  • help keep you safe
  • make it easier to cope
  • provide much-needed emotional support

This article explains how narcolepsy service dogs can help you manage this condition. It also offers some guidance for how to find and live with a trained service dog.

Studies have shown that medical service dogs can detect health conditions, such as narcolepsy, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, and other disorders in people. Researchers think the ability to spot these disorders may be related to the dogs’ extra-sensitive ability to smell.

There isn’t much research that explains exactly how narcolepsy service dogs do what they do, but experts at U.S. Service Animals say these specially trained dogs can:

  • Warn you that a sleeping episode is coming as early as 5 minutes beforehand, giving you time to sit or lie down safely.
  • Summon help if you’ve been hurt during a sleeping episode.
  • Wake you during or after an episode by licking your face or nudging you.
  • Wake you if you don’t respond to your daily alarm.
  • Bring you medications and other items.
  • Guard you during a sleep episode to keep others from harming you.
  • Encourage you to take daily walks, which health experts recommend as a coping strategy.
  • Provide a kind of “pressure” therapy by leaning against you to give you a physical sense of support during stressful times.
  • Give you a sense of companionship to stave off the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that can sometimes come with this disorder.
  • Remind you of reality during hypnogogic hallucinations.
  • Relieve symptoms of anxiety, such as a pounding heart and high blood pressure.

Each trainer and service animal organization has its own requirements. Often, you’ll need to:

  • have a diagnosis of narcolepsy or narcolepsy with cataplexy from your physician
  • be 12 years old or older
  • be able to train with your dog at least an hour a day
  • commit to reacting when your dog gives you an alert or warning
  • be physically and mentally able to handle a service dog
  • be prepared to meet the dog’s needs
  • have a safe and stable home
  • be willing to create and nurture a strong emotional bond with the dog
  • have no other dogs at home

Many medical service dogs begin their training when they’re around 6 months old. Although dogs of any breed can be trained as medical service dogs, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are popular choices because of their intelligence and temperaments. Standard poodles may also be a good option for people with allergies.

To begin the process, a trainer will meet with you to discuss your needs. Then your dog’s training will be tailored to your specific requirements. The complete process can take as long as 2 to 3 years. In most cases, you’ll continue to train with your dog for a period of 3 to 6 months after the dog is delivered to your home.

Organizations like these can help you find a match:

As you weigh your options, it’s important to understand the costs involved. The National Service Animal Registry estimates that fully-trained medical service dogs can range from $15,000 to $30,000. When you factor in ongoing training, veterinary care, food, and other yearly expenses, a narcolepsy service dog is a big investment.

You may be able to find a grant to help you cover the cost of training a service dog. Many trainers fund part or all of the training costs through donations. Assistance Dog United Campaign may be able to help you find funding.

Can you train your pet to be a service animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require all service dogs to be professionally trained. But it’s important to understand that not all dogs can be trained to perform as service animals. Your dog’s personality may or may not be suited to the tasks of a narcolepsy service dog. If your dog is a good candidate for training, the costs of training may be lower.

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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), people with disabilities are allowed to take trained service animals with them when they travel. Some airlines, transportation companies, and hotels have policies that address how service animals should be handled during travel.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind before you travel:

Be ready to fill out DOT forms

Airlines can require you to complete Department of Transportation (DOT) forms before you bring a service animal on a flight. Those forms ask you to state that your service dog is trained and that its behavior and health won’t put others at risk. The forms also ask you to state that your service dog can relieve itself in a sanitary way on longer flights.

Scout out walking zones

When you arrive at the airport, find out where you can walk your dog. Most airports have dog-walking areas for pets and service animals, which can be important if your flight is going to be a long one. You may want to pack a “mess” kit just in case.

Keep space and size in mind

Your service dog will be allowed to travel with you on the airplane as long as it doesn’t block aisles or exits. If your dog is a larger breed, it may not be possible for it to travel in the main cabin. The airline doesn’t have to upgrade you to give your dog extra space.

Know the rules of your destination

If you’re planning an international trip, check with your destination country to see if service animals are allowed. Assistance Dogs International provides an overview with links to many countries’ service animal policies. It’s also a good idea to travel with copies of your dog’s vaccination records. Knowing the rules in advance will help keep things as stress-free as possible for you and your dog.

Prepare your pooch

If your trip will take you from a quiet rural location to a busy downtown area, you may want to expose your dog a little at a time in advance. The noise, obstacles, crowds, sirens, and other distractions could pose a problem for your dog. If you’re going to be in a rural area, make sure your dog will return to you when you call.

Narcolepsy support dogs vs. emotional support animals

Emotional support animals are pets that provide psychological support to people with mental health conditions. They aren’t trained to provide specific services to people with disabilities. For that reason, they aren’t considered service dogs under the ADA. Airlines don’t have to make special accommodations for emotional support animals.

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Placing a service vest on an untrained dog is unethical. When people claim a pet is a trained service dog, it can cause people to question whether service animals are legitimate, which puts professionally trained dogs and their owners at risk.

In 23 states, falsely claiming a pet is a service dog is illegal. If you misrepresent your pet as a service animal, you can be fined or sent to jail in some states.

Living with a service dog isn’t as simple as living with a pet. Trainers recommend that you follow these best practices:

  • Stay close to your dog. Especially in the early months, physical closeness helps to build the bond between you.
  • Keep up the training. It can take years for your dog to get to know you and your health needs. Daily training is a good way for your dog to build knowledge and get better at anticipating your needs.
  • Understand the breed. Your dog’s need for exercise, tendency to shed, temperament, and other traits are influenced by its breed.
  • Keep your dog close. Don’t pen your dog outside or in a garage where they can’t reach you in a time of need. Keep your dog close to you at all times, otherwise you undermine the purpose of having a service dog.
  • Exercise them regularly. Outdoor walks are good for both of you.
  • Be aware of hazards in your environment. Keep your dog safe from traffic, icy sidewalks, blistering hot pavement, freshly tarred roads, chemicals, and other dangers.
  • Develop a good relationship with your dog’s vet. Regular care will help keep your service dog in top shape.
  • Make room for error and be patient. Just as you have days when you’re not at your best, your dog will, too.
  • Provide lots of love and praise. Your dog needs a healthy emotional connection with you.

Experts at the National Service Animal Registry say you can go out without your service dog. In fact, it may be a good idea to leave your dog at home if:

  • You’re going somewhere that’s likely to distress your service dog.
  • You’re going to be part of an activity that’s intentionally stressful, such as a sports competition or a horror film. Your emotional reaction could lead your dog to believe you’re in need of help.
  • You’re going to a service at a house of worship. Religious organizations are exempt from the requirements of the ADA. The Department of Justice explains in detail which places are not required to allow service animals.
  • You’re going to be unable to care for them. If you’re going to be admitted for surgery, think about who will look after your dog while you’re not able to. Some hospitals may charge you to board your dog if you can’t care for them for a long period.

A narcolepsy service dog can warn you that an episode is coming, wake you afterward, get help if you’re hurt, and fetch medications and other supplies if you need them. They can also give you lots of emotional support.

Training can be costly, and the process can take as long as 3 years to complete. It’s also a serious commitment. You’ll need to participate in training, care for your dog’s ongoing needs, and plan carefully for outings and travel. Still, if you can make the investment, a service dog may make living with narcolepsy safer and easier.