Flash was doing what is called “alerting” in the world of working service dogs, telling Bates that he might not be OK.
After his talk, Bates went back to his room, took some meds and went to sleep, avoiding a potential medical emergency.
“A service dog can smell differences in our chemistry, when we’re stressed or sick. That’s how they can track a person who is lost in the woods. From miles away, they can smell fear or distress.”
Trained service dogs can be life-changing, and even lifesaving for the humans they serve by safeguarding them, Cortani said, helping their people develop deeper human connections — and even saving them from themselves.
Service dogs keep their humans out of the ER
“It’s not pretty,” Bates said. “It starts with lesions in your mucous membrane, progresses to your skin falling off in large chunks and can lead you to go blind and die in a burn unit.”
He’s had to visit hospital emergency rooms a couple times during the early phases of a potentially dangerous medical crisis.
Protecting Bates since 2009, Flash alerts him whenever he senses his stress rise to an unhealthy level. Because of Flash’s protection, Bates has gained “massive freedom of action” and has been spared any further trips to the ER.
Trained dogs can assist with PTSD
Because of their dog’s “sixth sense” for danger, an owner suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is often able to relax if their dog is relaxed.
Veterans tell McCarren that their service dogs give them greater comfort being in public because “it is their dog and not their disability that is the center of attention.”
Developing deeper human connection
That was not to be, according to Cortani, who is widely known to be a “dog whisperer.” “I don’t give people the dogs they want,” Cortani said. “I give them the dogs they need.”
Jennelle, now the organization’s head mentor trainer, received a white ball of fluff named Laddie instead. Laddie, a border collie mix, is a magnet for positive attention, which was uncomfortable for Jenelle at first. Now, “I wouldn’t trade Laddie for the world,” he said.
After three years, Whitmer said he enjoys many positive interactions with strangers and looks forward to going out in public. Whitmer feels his capacity for empathy has grown in direct proportion to his work with his service dog, also named Paul.
“I’m now able to feel what others are feeling and respond accordingly,” he said.
Service dogs may even save us from ourselves
Whitmer said his dog probably saved his life. “Had Paul not been awarded to me — I’m not 100% sure I’d be around today. I was circling the drain, and now there’s a stopper in it, and the basin is filling back up again. It’s truly amazing.”
Trained service dogs are working dogs, who are motivated to bond and attend to one person. They can be trained to do nearly 50 tasks, including retrieving items, opening doors, clearing rooms and mitigating the symptoms of trauma.
It’s important to remember that the rules of engagement for service dogs are different from family pets. Here’s how to interact with them.
Look for a vest. It likely says, “working dog — do not pet.” Service dogs will always be wearing an official vest.
Ask permission before you touch or engage a service dog. You can say, “May I visit with your dog?” If the owner says no, do not take this personally. It is impossible to know the nature of their challenges or the rationale for requesting space.
How to pet the dog. If the owner is agreeable, stand at a 90-degree angle from the dog and extend the back of your hand. The dog will usually sniff your feet first and travel up your leg to your hand. Stroke the dog under the chin and slowly come up around the ears, rather than coming straight down over the head, which can be perceived as threatening behavior to a dog.
Stay chill. Exhibit a calm, open demeanor throughout the interaction. If you do, you may be part of a healing journey, although you may never know it.