After having trouble finding a service dog, a Lebanon resident started a volunteer program to help people train their own service dogs.
Suzanne Brean started the Dogs for Invisible Disabilities in January 2011, after losing her job at the Linn County District Attorney’s Office.
Now she and her husband Clark, along with a small volunteer staff, work with people to train well-behaved dogs into service dogs for people with “invisible disabilities.”
Suzanne said invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not apparent.
These disabilities may include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety problems, or just having trouble picking things up off the ground.
Dogs are ready to begin training to become service dogs at 12 weeks old.
Because they are owner-trained, the dogs may start helping their owner as soon as the dog begins training, Suzanne said.
“We primarily do owner training,” she said. “If the dog shows that it is suited to be a service dog – and it’s young enough – then we will help them with training for the dog to become a service dog.”
She said the program will do a temperament test to determine if the dog is capable of being a service dog.
“(The dogs) have to be kind of unflappable,” Suzanne said. “It’s OK to startle to a noise, but they’ve got to recover quickly from it.”
The service first starts with the basic obedience commands: sit, stay and wait.
“Then we work with the person, based on their disability, to come up with things the dog can do to help them,” Suzanne said. “(That) can be helping them pick up things because they can’t bend over well, or helping them with balance if they’ve got stability issues, or helping them find exits because they are having a panic attack.”
If the owner suffers from a medical issue, they can train the dog to find the owner’s medical bag and bring it to them, Suzanne said.
The group meets once a week with the owner to see how progress is coming.
animals vs. fraud
Suzanne said some people use dog service vests as a way to take their pets to public locations that ban dogs.
She said this causes problems for people who need the dogs for legitimate reasons.
Suzanne said she has faced her own problems with taking her service dog in public.
“I’ve been chased through a grocery store by an elderly lady who was screaming at me that I wasn’t blind, and therefore couldn’t have a service dog with me,” she said.
Clark Brean said these dogs are so well-behaved that people shouldn’t have trouble with them.
“They are not going to bite, they are not going to lunge, they are not going to dive after food,” Clark said. “Those kinds of behaviors are not acceptable in a service dog.”
He said anyone who has a dog that is wearing a service vest and exhibiting those behaviors is not a service dog.
“They’re what we consider a fake,” Suzanne Brean said. “Fakers are a huge problem.”
She said people will ask her to get a vest just so they can take their dog anywhere without doing any of the training.
“That’s really a problem for people who really need the animals,” Clark said. “Bad publicity and bad press that we get because people have pets that are really out of control and don’t belong anywhere near other people and other animals. It really creates a problem for people who need these animals.”
People also may have trouble taking their service dog to work, Suzanne said.
“The pure frustration of trying to get managers and businesses to realize that it will help your employee,” Suzanne said. “I know it’s a pain to have a dog in the office, but it can benefit your employee and can make them a better employee.”
Dogs for Invisible Disabilities will not work with people who do not have a documented disability.
“As a service dog, the dog is a piece of medical equipment,” Suzanne said. “So you’ve got to change your thought process, from it’s my pet, to this is a working dog.”
Suzanne said she also has denied people from participating in the program because their dogs are out of control.
They will work with a dog like that if the person sends the dog to a behaviorist to correct issues such as snapping or barking at other dogs.
Suzanne’s service dog
Suzanne suffers from PTSD, an anxiety disorder and a seizure disorder. All of these are considered “invisible disabilities.” She has trained Wyatt to help her as a service dog.
Wyatt, her 4-year-old English labrador retriever, will alert Suzanne to her seizures by a couple of minutes to a couple of hours.
“He guides me when I have anxiety issues,” she said. “He can take me to the nearest exit or I can tell him to find the car.”
Wyatt also helps her with stability issues after seizure episodes, because she tends to be unstable. Suzanne can also use him as a brace to help her get up.
“If I’m laying down and need help getting up, he’ll actually go lay down underneath me then help me get on top of him and he’ll stand up,” Suzanne said.
She said when Wyatt is not wearing the service dog vest, he is just a normal dog, but when he puts the vest on he becomes a working dog.
He can tell the difference, she said.
Brean said half the people working with the program are former military, but the program will work with people who have an invisible disability of any kind.
“We have veterans. We have people that have non-combat PTSD, anxiety disorders, seizures disorders, and autism,” Suzanne said.
Another thing Wyatt can do is block people from approaching her. Suzanne said this is often done for people with PTSD.
“A lot of people with PTSD issues like to have their houses searched,” she said. “We can teach the dog to search the house.”
Suzanne said the breed of dog does not matter, but there are issues with certain breeds.
“If (a person) needs stability work you don’t want a Chihuahua,” Suzanne said. “If you live in a small apartment, you don’t want a Great Dane. We (train) everything from Miniature (Australian shepherds ) to Rottweilers and everything in between.”
Clark said trouble may arise because of legal issues or public reputation.
“Some dogs are just pigheaded and tougher to train than others,” he said. “If you really want that dog, OK fine, but we’ll warn you that there are going to be issues that you’re going to have.”
Attention in public
“We make sure that people understand that if you have a service dog, you are the center of attention when you go out in public,” Suzanne said. “If that’s not something you can handle, a service dog is probably not an answer for you.”
She warns people that in public people may be rude about having the dog.
Suzanne said there are times when it is appropriate for strangers to pet service dogs, but encourages people to ask first. She said this applies to any dog, not just service dogs.
When the dog is ready
The dogs are considered done with the program when they can pass the public access test. This tests the dog’s ability in public, and how the dog reacts to different situations.
Linn-Co Federal Credit Union has sponsored all of the vests for the service dogs. Suzanne is sewing Linn-Co’s logo on all of the vests for the dogs.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.”
The ADA does not require certification of a service animal. Dogs for Invisible Disabilities provides certification that the dog has passed the public access test.
The only charge for the program is $35 for the video temperament test, and for record-keeping.
The group has several vests for different breeds of dogs, and to accommodate them as they grow.
Suzanne said “I love doing (this type of work). If I could do this for a living, I would.”
For more information or to volunteer, call 541-974-0327 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to see what the requirements for service dogs are visit www.oregon.gov/DHS/odhhs/tadoc/ada5.shtml.