New wave of service dogs helps people live healthier lives

by Sue on September 12, 2011

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Riley Mers, who has a severe peanut allergy, looks out the front window of her home in Monument, Colo., with her service dog Rock’O, who’s trained to alert the 10-year-old if even trace amounts of peanuts are present.

Rock’O keeps his deathly allergic young pal away from the peanuts and peanut residue that lurk in unexpected places. Kayla pokes and barks at her owner seconds after his body chemistry goes awry and his bipolar medications must be taken. And Alma does rehab activities with patients in the brain and spinal cord injury unit at San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Medical Center to help them regain strength and learn new ways of doing things.

Rock’O, Kayla and Alma are at the vanguard of a new wave of service dogs trained to handle things their humans cannot. From alerting owners to an impending seizure to helping people with psychiatric or memory conditions (including Alzheimer’s) stay stable and safe, service dogs are helping an ever-broadening array of people live more normal, independent lives, just as they have helped hearing-, seeing- and mobility-impaired people for decades.

“Rock’O is an extra layer of protection,” Sherry Mers of Monument, Colo., says. The Portuguese water dog received service-dog training in Colorado and then spent months of peanut-sniffing training at the Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, which trains bomb- and narcotics-sniffing dogs.

Mers’ daughter, Riley, 8, is so severely allergic to peanuts that she has been rushed to the emergency room simply because she came into contact with particles of peanut dust, and the specter of anaphylaxis hovers whenever she leaves home. The girl attends school in a “contained” environment that assures no contact with anything that has been near peanuts, and her rare outings have always carried risk.

But Rock’O has broadened her world. On a mall visit, he sniffed a bowl of peanut-studded candy several feet away in a jewelry store and prevented Riley from going in, and he warned her away from an area in her own yard where peanut shells were on the ground, apparently carried there by squirrels.

Now the girl is confidently — and safely — getting out more. “She said the other day, ‘I think I will be able to go to college now,’ ” says Mers, who has started a non-profit foundation ( so children with “hidden disabilities” such as severe allergies and seizures can afford specially trained animals to help them.

Sniffing out new ways to help

Experts predict that as time goes on, dogs will be trained to deal with many other human conditions in ways not yet contemplated. Already, for example, returning waves of severely injured military personnel have spurred some service-dog groups to investigate new ways to help.

“There has been an increase in amputees, poly-trauma and PTSD. The assistance-dog industry needs to take a close look at how to serve this group,” says Clark Pappas of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine Companions for Independence (, which launched a Wounded Veterans Initiative in 2007 to provide assistance dogs to injured soldiers and has teamed up 55 so far.

Meanwhile, dogs are helping in a variety of ways. Kayla, the German shepherd owned by David Nowak of New Brunswick, N.J., who was diagnosed in 1998 with bipolar disorder, “has her paws full 24/7,” he says.

His rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, he says, means his moods can shift at lightning speed. Medication helps, but stress and other factors can throw him into a peak or valley almost without warning. When Kayla senses a shift in his body chemistry, she whines and goes to the medicine cabinet, alerting him to take his pills. In some cases, he passes out, and she’s trained to poke him until he comes to. If that doesn’t work, she barks until help arrives.

A dog trainer for many years, Nowak has trained two dogs to help him, as well as two service dogs for others with bipolar disorder. Without a service dog, he says, “I probably wouldn’t leave the house much. Anxiety can make me pass out, and then, of course, you wake up disoriented, which could lead to another spiral.” Kayla, who carries his medications on her service-dog vest when they go out, “has given me comfort and stability.”

‘Facility dogs’ to the rescue

Alma, the San Jose hospital dog who dons a name badge and goes to work each day, is one of a growing category of service dogs referred to as “facility dogs.” Alma had almost two years of service-dog training by Canine Companions for Independence, but instead of being assigned to a person requiring everyday help, she — and others like her — are assigned to a health professional.

Occupational therapist Carole Adler is Alma’s handler, and the dog’s duties depend on the needs of the person she’s helping: She might get brushed by someone trying to rebuild upper-body coordination, or she might serve as a four-legged “cane” for someone who is learning to walk again.

The golden retriever/Labrador retriever mix also is regularly invited to the burn unit to assist with rehab there. Healing skin is extremely sensitive, and “the kids are often afraid the therapists will hurt them as we put them through exercises to stretch a burned arm, for example,” Adler says. But “we can get them through the necessary movement with Alma — kids will throw a ball for her to fetch and have such fun they’re not focused on the pain.”

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gloria French 09.15.11 at 7:58 pm

I was attacke by office managr and receptionist at medical center I go to I have a small service dog her name is abby she lets me know if My blood suger is high or low. I have to drive 2 1/2 hous to the medical center and tuesday I could not eat before appointment. they demanded ID and a vest and because Abby is to small for ID tag and hates the vest She never wears it. but there policy states only service DOG only I would love to know how to address this. For now My counsler has to come to the door and escort me to his office I am not allowed through a public door into waiting room. can some one help me

2 Anonymous 09.16.11 at 10:37 am

Buy id cards you carry in your wallet. Would she/ he wear a neck scarf? I have seen them on the Internet? But I made my own since I have a machine that does stitching.
Could the person you were seeing step in and help?
I have one place I try not to go since the made it clear that they don’t want us. Will let us since it is the law, but it took a letter with a complaint, info on the las, saying about filing a complaint with the department of justice and that the fine for the first time would be 55,000 dollars. They let my sd come very quickly, but knowing we are not wanted there I try not to go.

3 id shirley 09.19.11 at 7:24 am sells service dog leash covers and collar covers under accessories

4 Anna and Mia 09.19.11 at 7:53 am

Gloria and Abby, I am so sorry to hear that you were treated in such an awful and unfair way. My little Mia is also only 8 1/2 pounds and small for a Service Animal so I don’t put a service harness on her either but she wears a regular red or black harness with the “small” Spot ID tag hanging from it and I carry the larger one in my bag. Mia has a soft trachia and can’t wear a collar but the tiny straps of a regular harness seems to work. I am STILL struggling for acceptance at our local Winco store so I do understand your treatment. We finally went back yesterday and was told that “as long as I have a barrier in the cart” between Mia and the cart, i.e. blanket, pillow, coat whatever, they are GOING TO ALLOW ME TO SHOP there. They concluded with “We aren’t going to promote this BUT we WILL ALLOW it. Really makes you feel like going back doesn’t it. The ignorance of the world isn’t going to change over night but each time we tackle one incident and stand up for our rights and the rights of these “little miracle” Service Dogs we are making a step forward in the education of all these very closed minded people and ignorant people that life has put in public places to test our faith. Take care and keep fighting! You have a God given right to stick up for your rights, that’s why we live in America. Don’t let ignorant people take that away from you. Blessings, Anna and Mia in Oregon

5 Catherine Hunter 09.19.11 at 9:03 am

My service dog is 5.5lb Yorkshire terrier. I found a bright red Puppia harness for him and a small service dog tag that I attach to the harness. Even with that I get sideways looks from Airport workers and I was even shouted at across a crowded room in the post office!
I think we need an awareness program, so that people understand that not all service dogs are seeing eye dogs.
I was standing in the Post Office on Turkey Lake road in Orlando, waiting to drop off some packages because their outside box was full. One of the clerks saw me at the end of the line and yelled, “Mam dogs are not allowed in here”, I replied that he is a service dog and pointed to the tag, at that the clerk through down his pen said “I’m out of here”, he then left. This meant that the line of people were only being served by the one remaining clerk. Then from behind the staff only door a very large, at least 6’4″ ( I am 5′ 3″) man came out and came over and stood very close to me, at this point the entire room was staring at us, he said “Mam puppies are not allowed in here” I replied (again) that he is a service dog wearing a service harness and tag, he then walked of, without saying sorry or anything. I was very upset and nervous. During all this my little dog stayed calmly in my arms, he started licking me and holding on to me, he has a special ability to curve his little legs and actually hold on to me. The people in the queue
were shocked at my treatment and instead of being upset with me for causing the service to get even slower, one man said ” They can’t even sell us a stamp but they can send two people to harass this woman”.
Now I sometimes have to go to the post office, it is unavoidable, but now, my condition gets worse at the thought of going there and the trouble I might cause.
We have to do something about acceptance and awareness

6 Nichole 09.19.11 at 9:10 am

Go up to the top of the page and under the tab “ADA Service Dog Guidelines” and print that out. That will tell the business all the information they need and let them know that what they are doing is in fact breaking federal law.

I have fought this battle with my county animal control in trying to get my dog his county service dog tag. They are, or should I say were, requiring Certification. After calling the ADA/DOJ, the county has suspended issuing county tags indefinitely while they get the correct procedures from the DOJ in place. After fighting with them over the phone for months, I took the above print out into them and they even refused to read it because they new they were in the wrong, they just told me it was “their policy” to require certification.

I got to the point where I had a dog tag (the army type) made that says Service Dog on one side and on the other side it says ADA Federal Law Public Access Required and I just keep it on my key chain. When I am working and just run in somewhere on break, I don’t bother with my dogs vest or harness, that tag is all I need, even places like Walmart that have given me huge issues in the past!

7 Allice Allen 09.19.11 at 9:24 am

To all I have blogged here before I have a small service dog also and have had the same issues and have filed a complaint on Winco just mailed it today. Follow the ADA/DOJ laws, do not buy ID cards etc.. because it causes more problems they are already asking for things that are not allowed by Federal law. Even I have stopped using my ID tags because the Dept Of Justice/ADA hotline told me not to, and it is better. I went to a store yesterday I go to often and told on by another customer not 25 ft away she stopped and stated to the Asst Mgr & another employee, that what is the dog policy. I and my husband heard the young Asst Mgr state the Federal law to the upset customer. Then he came over and asked for ID cards, I have the laws printed and handed it to him, then asked if I could help educate him and he was happy to listen and even told me of stories of people bringing in dogs without collars, carrying them and went asked they stated they have ID cards or EMS dog. Please update go to the website new laws started March 15, 2011, it lays all of it out in black and white and stand up for your rights it is the law. After I left that store I called the customer service line and spoke with them and the local store managers were instructed to get up to date ASAP and not ask for ID cards, they can only ask 2 questions and they do not want to violate the Federal law, smart of them, Winco will also get on board as long as we complaint to DOJ, because Walmart only had 5 complaints and settled with DOJ and each person. Since I have done all of this I feel empowered to go anywhere and it it starting to work much better, than providing too much information to the uneducated. Mia I know that it helps what Winco is allowing you to do. But from there legal department Mike Reed states that he can not control all the managers of there stores, so you might be allowed once, then someone else will come in and change what you have, why allow them to make an illegal decision for you? Call for the forms from ADA/DOJ and take back your rights. I need your help to make it better for all of us if we are asked to be treated like “those dogs, those people” they will never follow the federal law. Please help, us I know it is easier at the time to do it their way! That is making them more ignorant of the rights of all of us. Please I have worked hard to get this information out there even helped you so please help ourselves, we do not want to bend to illegal action against us. Allice & Little Girl in Boise

8 Jerry 09.19.11 at 9:51 am

I cannot figure out how anyone is supposed to know we have a service dog, if our dog is not identified. Peanut is six pounds and wears an orange vest with service dog patches on both sides of it. Peanut also wears a badge id when we go out. Honestly, he did have to be trained to wear the vest but he now reminds me to put it on him if we go out and I forget. I think we have to be reasonable when we ask the public to accept us with our service dogs, and at least let then and other patrons know that our dog is a service dog!

9 Allice Allen 09.19.11 at 10:14 am

I think because of the 2 question established by federal law, that is what the Dept of Justice/ADA is stating, if we the disabled do not follow the laws by only answering the 2 questions allowed then we are going in too many directions. It is enough that we are disabled why are we spending money to establish that we are to the public? I know that it is difficult, because I am constantly standing my ground, but again contact the toll-free number or website and ask the question of the DOJ/ADA. Because to be asked more than the law allows, means we are being discriminated against over and over, think of it that way. Not how do we ID ourselves as being different and needing assistance to be like everyone else? Print off the current laws, use a collar and leash and answer only 2 questions, take names of persons not following the laws and go online and file a complaint. We are the portion of the population that can most often can not afford to pay for all the ID stuff. Look at NC there are owner/handler/service dog, that are filing an class action against the State/City/county for requiring ID cards because it goes beyond the Federal Laws and they can not ask private/confidental health information that is why 2 questions only. Are you disabled (yes), what service does the dog do? (alerts) example.

10 Jerry 09.19.11 at 10:28 am

Ok, do not use the id card. The vest lets people know your dog is a service dog. We are inviting problems if we do not at least identify our dog as a service dog. It creates problems for businesses when other patrons ask the owner why our dog is in the business and is not identified. I am very willing to stand up for my rights but I would like a peaceful life and I do not invite trouble. Just my thoughts,

11 Diann 09.19.11 at 10:56 am

My husband went to hospital and was in ICU. security came in and made me leave. They said the only service dogs allow were one approved by their hospital. Is this wrong are can they do that?
Thank You

12 Jerry 09.19.11 at 11:18 am

There is some confusion about “therapy dogs” and the hospital does not have to allow them in. They usually require them to be checked by someone on staff and then they may be allowed in. Some security see this as a way to try and not admit a “service dog” but they are breaking the law. If you id your dog as a therapy dog, of course you will not be allowed to bring him or her into the hospital without their permission.

13 Katherine 09.19.11 at 11:36 am

They can only ask “Is this a service animal” whether the animal is clearly marked or not and “What does the animal do” ie is it a medical alert or not. there have been times I have gone out without Malichi’s vest because it has been washed (VERY rare since my medication that I need is ALWAYS in his vest) They can not demand proof paperwork nor ID but you can get an ID for your dog that can be carried in a wallet as a safety measure… when people think Service dog they think Labs or Goldens..Malichi is a Boxer his replacement Celeste is a Great Dane (When old enough she will be used as a bracer dog for me) Some people use Chihauhaus for seizure alert because chihauhaus odd enough are more sensitive to seizures… though people NEVER think of small dogs… and the biggest thing I recall is walking through the mall with Malichi and hearing “Oh she’s blind” the world is closed off to the many disabilities people face and the many services dogs can provide or animals in general. I have lunch at the local IHOP with a Lady here who has a capuchin(sp) as a service animal he is taught to open things get the phone ect… he is a facinating creature. I recall going in and a Woman raising hell because she had her animal and I had malichi and apparantly the resturaunt was “running a petting zoo” she has a nuerological disorder and doesn’t function easily with her hands or something… she was out with her husband. Animals are amazing creatures.

I am sorry you were treated that way I would have reported them…you were treated VERY unjust but maybe a tag in the wallet just for a backup in future cases?? I haven’t heard about the scarves though now I need to go google!

14 Marilyn Gould 09.19.11 at 11:37 am

Is it true that the ADA was amended or changed March 15th 2011 to read service dogs must perform a specific task for a person with a specific disability?

15 Katherine 09.19.11 at 11:44 am

Jerry you raise a valid point but sometimes the vest is not enough. I went into walmart about 3 months ago with Malichi. he wears a blue vest with his patches he also dons his ID on him he is clearly marked so no questions…the greeter asked “Is that a service dog” I answered politely “Yes Sir” of course Malichi walks on my right side so I figured maybe he didn’t see the vest (giving benefit of the doubt) I turned malichi so that it could be seen he was clearly marked….ID in plain view on Malichi’s right side vest clearly visible “I am a service dog” and “Medical alert” I turned figuring all was well and started with my Husband and our cart towards produce when he yells “Excuse me Ma’am I asked is that a service dog” loud bringing attention.. a dog in the middle of walmart doesn’t draw attention… *brow lift* Yelling adds to it…I turned I answered again “Yes Sir” and again turned so he could AGAIN see the vest and ID tag…clear view…. then I turned the third time he shouts pets are not allowed and he needed to ask me to leave…..I turned and told him I wanted to speak to his manager immediately.. thankfully walmart has cameras….. Vest aren’t always the best…. went through the same thing with an OKC police officer in the courthouse when he demanded to see the “Certification papers” and I told him he was stepping out of line. I think what the world needs is a better education on vests and service dogs in general but it doesn’t help when you have people always trying to bring their pets into public places it makes things more difficult for those of us who rely on our dogs

16 Jerry 09.19.11 at 11:46 am

Hi Marilyn
You might want to go to this link and I’m sure it will answer your question.

17 Jerry 09.19.11 at 11:57 am

Katherine I have had problems at several places. Likely the strangest was “City of Hope” a cancer hospital in Duarte Calif. it was a real pain and I did not need to argue with a security guard or his boss. I was shocked at how ignorant they were and telling me to leave the hospital was not going to work. As usual I won the debate through educating the ignorant and had no more problems there. My point is this :it was not the hospital it was a couple of uneducated persons that should have been trained, but were not. That is almost always what the problem is.
Now I should say that day to day I have very few problems getting into places with Peanut. I never go out without him so he goes everywhere with me. There will always be a new group of persons that are ignorant of the law but that is life. I do have several vests and badges (Peanut will chew a badge now and again) in our cars.


18 Patch 09.19.11 at 1:10 pm

My dog is a service dog and a medic alert. I was a Ground Zero worker in NYC on 9/ll and suffer from PTSD. My therapist wanted me to get a pup to train and help me deal with all this. The border collie pup grew up and was trained and one day began to alert me if I forgot my medicine. She enables me to go into large crowds and go shopping without looking for terrorist and bombs. This dog is a life line for me. She also worked in two hospitals as a therapy dog and is the only Hospice Dog in our country. How great is that. I took her to Sunday School last week to explain to all the children that you can’t always see a disablity. It is important that people understand that.

19 Allice Allen 09.19.11 at 1:11 pm

All of us are correct, the point is if someone is not aware of the current federal laws, educate them if a computer is near ask then to log onto the ADA/DOJ website it is fast and easy. I have the current laws reduced in size and laiminated (sp?) along with me Dr’s letter just in case. I have not purchased service dog tags in a couple of years will do just to have, but my dog has congestive heart failure she is 13 so I am looking into a rescue to train myself just like I did her. But back to Laws I had a minor problem yesterday because a women went to tattle on me in a store and a young Asst Mgr, did not know how to ask or what to ask. So after he asked incorrect info I did educate him and he was really nice. Today the manager of the store called and made sure to update me on the in service they are having this week. That is so they know what to ask, just because of one women that thought she had the right to complain about me, she should get a life and mind her own business or be correct when she opens her mouth. We all must keep on going what else is there to do?

20 Allice Allen 09.19.11 at 1:34 pm

Marilyn, yes it is true, I have spent the better part of 2 months fighting and filing complaints against Winco Foods Inc, and I can give you this website so you can read it for yourself it definds that emotional/ or comfort dogs do not qualify as service animals under ADA. or just and look under service animals revised requirments. Even though we would all like the EMS animals to go with us everywhere, they are not defined as service dogs and it makes it harder for the disabled and service animals to be accepted. Also it seems the in thing for Paris Hilton types that want to have the little doggies with them all the time and do not care that it makes it harder for real service animals.

21 tami 09.19.11 at 4:52 pm

I use a stroller and even though I have tags and vests, the stroller puts stores and restaurants more at ease. To be a service dog they must perform a task. I didn’t read the whole thing, but in psychological cases like PTSD, Panic anxiety, BiPolar, if the dogs alerts, so the person can take meds or other intervention, or moves it’s owner to safer place, then it is a service dog as amended in 2010. I’ve been in grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants etc with no problem ever. My problem is my HOA, who want a certificate (which does not exist(yes I know you can buy one), but there is no certifying body in the US. AND they want a note from my DR. they will rot in hell before they get that. So I contact an attorney who specializes in HOA’s and their separate country atttude and the retainer is 5K. I don’t have that kind of money.

22 jerry 09.19.11 at 6:50 pm

Not sure if this will work but here is Peanut’s stroller. It is a jeep of course (I’m a car buff) any way this is me and Peanut at the swapmeet.

23 jerry 09.19.11 at 6:52 pm
24 jerry 09.19.11 at 7:01 pm

Oh, just thought, in this photo you can see Peanut’s vest.


25 diana l. russell 09.20.11 at 3:42 am

I suffer from both Bipolar disorder and Tourette Syndrome which brings on a great deal if anxiety when i’m out in public. I have 2 service dogs(one is in training..she’s a pup) they are a pug and a pit bull..YES a precious pit bull and they both can tell the change in my body chenistry when i’m getting ready to go into and wzxiety attack or just start getting very anxious. they eachhave their own signals they give me so i know i need to take my anxiety medication. Some times i dont need the medication and just stop what i’m doing and give them all my attention and they comfort me until the anxiety has passed. I honestly don’t know what i would do without them. The Pugs name is Elvis and the Pit Bulls name is Samantha. Samantha has had an article written up about her on under “Samantha the Service Dog.” it’s a beautiful story. I believe service dogs are a Gods gift to us who need them whether it be for physical challanged or pyschological challenged. Thank You to all the loving 4 legged animals out there who help us get through our days one by one.

26 Connor Keating 09.28.11 at 8:04 am

I might need to purchase or adopt a service dog for my grandmother in the near future so my first question because money at this time are short would be for you to please recommend me some accessories for service dogs and of course for the people that require their services. My grandmother is already having a hard time walking by herself let alone with a dog by her side but she needs it so please tell me what kind of harnesses, leashes or anything else I should purchase to make sure both my grandmother and the dog will be ‘well equipped’.

27 Linda 10.03.11 at 10:01 pm

A service dog is trained for a specific person. I would have no way of helping you know what to do for her.
However, here is a link to a site for mobility dogs and possible equipment:

I do have a concern that she might not be a good match for a big dog, which is what it takes to walk by you. Mine bumps me, while I have a balance issue (due to a stroke) I always go backwards and otherwise am very steady on my feet. I also also younger (in my 50′s) and a pretty solid build, so he doesn’t cause any problems when we bump, with an older or frail person that might not be the case.

28 Blair 12.20.11 at 7:48 pm

Yes on 3/15/2011 all service dog must know a tasks out in public to be able to be out with their handler (Owner) it must be for their own type of disablity only! If the dog can’t do this it is a pet not a service dog when out in public. Also Please read the ADA on service dogs over again.

29 Pami 12.20.11 at 7:52 pm

I found a great website where you can get service dog and hearing dogs, Epi-Pen Respond Dog patches and vest go online to Pup’ an many other type of patches. Let me know what you think of this website. And how the patches and vest works out for you out in public.

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