The Advantages of Having a Service Dog

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

I chose to apply for a service dog after meeting someone else with Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS) who had been given one by the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans.

At first, I was nervous that I would not be able to handle the responsibility, afford the cost, and that I would not qualify for a service dog. But the decision to apply and later bring “Maggie” into our lives was one of the best I’ve ever made.

Six days after coming home from a two week training program, Maggie saved my life. To this day, she senses when I have my breathing cut off and alerts me.

Maggie can somehow tell in the morning that I am headed for a bad night. She will look me in the eyes, nudge against me, lick my legs and not leave me alone. She was not trained to know this, but we somehow bonded so well in the first few weeks that she can sense when my oxygen levels are too low.

At night when she senses this, Maggie wakes me -- first by pacing on the bed, then whining, and if that does not work, she licks or nudges me until I awake.

I met Maggie when I was barely able to walk. She quickly helped me learn to live life in a wheelchair.

Imagine what it is like to drop an object and not be able to get down and pick it up. Maggie will pick up whatever she finds on the ground and bring it to me. She can retrieve the phone and pick up paper, pens, and almost any size object. She can even be sound asleep and hear me drop something and come right over to get it for me.

I also find her support with balance. Although NEADS does not train dogs to wear harnesses for balance, they do help you to utilize the dog for simple tasks, like getting up safely from a chair, out of a car and even off the toilet seat.

Maggie provides amazing pain relief and comfort, too. The heat from her body when she spoons against me, provides soothing comfort that goes way beyond any medication. To have her by my side helps me to gain confidence with my constantly slipping body.

I am always loved, cared for and never alone. As a service dog, Maggie can be by my side wherever I go -- whether it is the hospital, airport, train, pool, store, car, hotel, restaurant, and even the White House. She is welcome all places except a military base or private home. Those are the only places I must get permission for her to be with me.

Caring for Your Service Dog

I was concerned that I would not be able to care for my dog. But NEADS will train you to learn how to take care of the dog you are matched with no matter what your physical challenges might me. Do not stress about that - they will guide you and your dog through the process.

You will be taught how to care for the dog, how to feed, groom and exercise them, despite your obstacles.

Can You Afford a Service Dog?

An average NEADS dog costs over $42,000, but they only ask clients to raise a minimum of $8,000. I was so concerned I would never be able to raise the money for my dog, but NEADS put my mind at ease, explaining that they set up an online fundraising page for you to send out that tells your story and asks for support.

I sent the link to friends and also posted the story in local stores. In three months, all the money for Maggie was donated by people, many of whom I didn’t even know. Do not stress about the cost. NEADS will work that out if you qualify for a dog. They just ask that you help them defer the cost.

To apply for a dog, go to the NEADS website, fill out the application and then expect a call for an interview. Always feel free to contact their office to be sure the request has come through and to get an update on the status of your application.

I always encourage those that are considering a service dog to go ahead and apply, even if they have reservations, to get on the waiting list. The worst that can happen if you change your mind is that someone else gets the dog selected for you.

The wait can take from a few weeks to up to a year and a half. So why not get in line?

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.