Since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago, I’ve learned that one of the most important assets to have along this path is a great care team. And fortunately I have one.
I have great doctors, supportive family and friends and my amazing wife who has been by my side every step of the way.
However, no matter how invested our care partners are in helping us live well every day, we can’t expect them to be with us 24/7. They have lives, too. And for their own health and well-being, they need time to feed and nurture themselves. Time that doesn’t involving caring for us or worrying about us.
This is where my buddy Dempsey comes in.
When my wife and I first decided to have a dog help out with my Parkinson’s, we weren’t sure which avenue to pursue. Should I get an emotional support animal or a service animal?
Here’s what we learned:
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are animals that help meet the emotional needs of an individual and they primarily provide comfort in dealing with things like depression and/or anxiety.
Emotional support animals are typically dogs and cats, but may include other domesticated animals such as mice, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs, mini pigs and more.
In order to legally qualify for an emotional support animal, you need to have a prescription letter from a licensed mental health provider stating that you’re under their care for a mental disability as described in the DSM IV or V, and that your mental disability substantially limits at least one major life activity.
A person with an emotional support animal is legally covered by the Fair Housing Authority Act and can therefore live with their emotional support animal even in housing that may have rules against animals. They are also allowed to bring their emotional support animals on airplanes based on the Air Carriers Act, though I do suggest everyone call their airline ahead of time to learn about their specific policy. An emotional support animal is not covered by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that these animals are not allowed in most public places and it’s up to the management of individual places of business to set a policy for these types of support animals.
A service animal is a dog that’s been trained to help a person with specific tasks related to their disability. Service dogs are recognized by the ADA and are lawfully allowed in most public places to assist you with your disabilities.
There’s no legally recognized licensing authority for licensing service dogs so anything claiming to be so is most likely a scam.
Ideally you need to be able to explain that you have a disability, though you don’t need to tell them what your specific disability is, and tell them what specific tasks the dog can help you with. It’s a great idea to carry any documentation you have (at least have a doctor’s letter acknowledging that you have a recognized disability and have your dog’s most current shot records) with you at all times in case it’s requested.
After doing our research, we decided I needed a service dog. I wanted my dog to help me when I:
- Drop things
- Lose balance or fall
- Walk for exercise
- Need help maintaining good forward momentum
- Have to take medications (on time)
- Need to alert others for help
In order for a dog to be able to help you with all of these very specific tasks, they need special and consistent training. A service dog needs to be singularly focused on you and what’s going on around you. They need to be able to stay calm and remain focused despite the people and noises that cross their path. And they must do these things without misbehaving. No matter what.
Because of the standards that are expected of service dogs and because of the responsibilities they have to keep us safe, many people choose to get dogs that have been specifically trained by dog training experts for people with Parkinson’s.
It’s very difficult to find a service dog trained for Parkinson’s, and if you do find one, there’s usually quite a long wait. So, I took a different path. As my wife and I have had multiple Border Collies over the years, that’s the kind of dog I wanted. And I wanted to train him myself. While it hasn’t been easy, I’ve had some great people helping me along the way.
In my next post, I’ll fill you in on all of my best training tips and offer suggestions for those of you who might be considering training a service dog of your own.
CONNECT WITH AN AMBASSADOR
Among other things, Brian Reedy is a retired teacher and now, a dog trainer. He’s also part of our cohort of Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors are volunteers who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. Connect with one of our Ambassadors and begin your journey today of living well with Parkinson’s!