A service dog taking a break.

How Service Dogs Provide Care During the COVID-19 Outbreak

There is a stringent process for training service dogs, which typically starts when the dog is a puppy. Service dogs undergo two years of comprehensive training before going to work, and the first year is quite similar to training a non-service dog. The focus is on socialization, learning basic cues, and helping them mature developmentally before they can move on to hands-on training in a specific type of service.

During the second year of training, dogs are taught to navigate crowded streets, stores, restaurants, airports, and planes, along with other busy public spaces, to ensure that the human they are ultimately placed with is in good hands…er, paws.

Sally Day, Development Director for Service Dogs of Virginia (SDV), reports that training has been halted for dogs in their second year due to COVID-19.

“Year two is advanced training,” says Day. “It’s during this time that the trainers figure out the career path the dogs will take, and it’s all paused right now because of the stay at home orders. We have a longer-than-usual waitlist for service dogs as a result.”

Based in Charlottesville, SDV is a non-profit organization that “raises, trains, and places dogs to assist people with disabilities.” They are accredited by Assistance Dogs International, which maintains high standards of excellence for how organizations acquire, train, and place service dogs. SDV serves a variety of clients through five distinct training programs: Physical Assistance, Autism Service, Medical Alert, PTSD Service, and Facility Service.

“Some of our clients have disabilities that you can see,” says Day. “And some have disabilities that aren’t visible. No matter what challenges clients are living with, they all want to be more independent and live fuller lives. A service dog makes it possible for them to do that.”

Providing Comfort and Care for Those on the Autism Spectrum

SDV trains certain dogs to help children on the autism spectrum. The organization partners “with the educators, parents, and therapists involved in each child’s educational program to utilize [dogs] as a motivational tool to affect change.” These dogs aid in keeping their child safe in crowded public spaces, can help children improve gross and fine motor skills, and boost communication skills.

“The dogs that are trained to work with individuals on the autism spectrum are not bothered by strange noises or movements, and they like being with children” Day says. “The dogs are well prepared by the time they are placed with clients because they have been trained in every possible setting.”

Day also noted that life changes in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak have been really tough for children they work with who are on the autism spectrum. For those who already received their service dogs, however, many parents are reporting that the transition has been made easier because of their new service companion.

The Miracle of Medical Alert Service Dogs

Medical alert service dogs go through training that taps into a dog’s exceptional sense of smell. The scent training allows them to detect certain life-threatening medical conditions, such as severe Type 1 Diabetes or Addison’s Disease. In order for the training to be effective, there must be a smell associated with the medical condition, and the dogs are trained to that smell. SDV collects scent samples from those applying for a medical alert dog.

“There’s a certain smell associated with low blood sugar levels,” says Day. “So if a trained service dog smells it, they will alert their person with a bump to the leg.”

Likewise, there is a smell indicating low cortisol levels in those living with Addison’s Disease, which is a disorder that prevents the adrenal glands from producing the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. When cortisol levels drop in their human, dogs trained by SDV are able to detect it, and alert their person that they need to take additional cortisone to prevent a life-threatening medical emergency.

“One of our clients is an essential worker, an EMT,” says Day. “She and her medical alert dog, Irene, have still been showing up for work everyday to help others. Although Irene’s person is in full PPE now for work, Irene can still smell her and has adapted to their new routine. And at the end of a long shift, Irene is there to give her lots of kisses once all the protective gear comes off.”

Disappointed, but Looking to the Future

“Our trainers are all very disappointed that they’ve had to stop training their dogs due to the coronavirus,” says Day. “They know how important their work is and it’s been challenging for everyone to navigate this.”

One of the reasons training has stopped during the stay-at-home order is because dogs attend a “Transfer Camp” when they’re ready to be placed with their person. This is a two-week intensive training period in which the client is immersed in the experience with their new service dog to learn how to work with the animal. The process is a bit different, but just as immersive, for service dogs placed with children on the autism spectrum. Trainers provide in-home training for the whole family to help them all acclimate to the new situation and work together to best serve the child. Without the ability to do this, applicants will remain on the waitlist until things return to normal.

“Dogs are amazing. They’re non-judgmental, fun, and loving, and they certainly don’t care if their person is disabled,” says Day. “Being disabled can be very threatening to other people, so the more people understand how dogs can help, the more awareness will come to the issue, and the more public access those people with disabilities will have.”