That Barrett the golden doodle is being trained as a facility dog for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is great news (“Meet Hennepin County Attorney’s new staff member,” Jan. 1). Welcome to the group of facilities that have seen the enormous value a properly trained dog with the proper temperament can bring to efforts to deal with traumatic events impacting children and adults alike.
In the article, Barrett is referred to as an “emotional support dog.” While I don’t want to further complicate the often confusing support-dog nomenclature, which includes “service dogs,” “therapy dogs” and “emotional support dogs,” the new support dog on the block is properly referred to as a “facility dog.”
A facility dog works within a facility where its services are sought on a day-to-day basis. The facility dog typically, but not always, works solely for one facility, and is brought to and from the workplace by its handler, who works with or for that facility. The facility dog’s handler takes care of the dog’s daily needs — feeding, nurturing, training, grooming, a place to call home — not to mention the business of cleaning up after the dog.
A facility dog’s job is to provide emotional support to those who need it, plain and simple. Sometimes it’s the clients; often it’s the staff. They are nonjudgmental providers of unconditional love unlike any other. To a traumatized child, they are like angels.
Before becoming a volunteer service dog trainer for a local nonprofit, I had no idea the impact a service dog could make. (If you want to see a tiny sample of this impact, visit a Helping Paws service dog graduation. Bring tissue.) These dogs can and do change the lives of the disabled, from almost complete dependency on others to a level of independence they may never have known. This is life changing in a very good way.
For the military veteran suffering the effects of PTSD, the service dog offers a life with hope that cannot be understood or even described without speaking to a suffering veteran.
While therapy dogs and emotional support dogs don’t receive the kind of intensive training a service dog does, their ability to bring support, relief and love to those who need it is invaluable.
My only concern for Barrett is that it takes a very special dog to stand with the ranks of properly trained and placed facility dogs. That he is an untrained puppy leaves his potential as a facility dog unknown. While I sincerely hope he makes it, those of us in the training side of the support dog business know only too well how special these dogs need to be.
Even if the dog’s temperament is perfect — and this will remain unknown until the puppy develops — there are a number of things that can trip-up the process. Even with selective breeding, health concerns such as hip dysplasia, issues with eyes and sight, structural issues such as ACL injuries and others, not to mention the many possible allergies, can all disqualify dogs from service.
Most importantly, not all dogs possess the proper temperament to be a support dog and not all dogs are as trainable as others. And while such dogs can still provide love and support to their owners, using them as a support dog can be unfair for all involved.
That Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office (among others) have chosen trained service dogs as their facility dogs speaks volumes. As 2½-year-old dogs, whose temperament, response to training and health have been scrutinized, nurtured and tested, they are known quantities. While some of their advanced skills, such as opening doors and turning on lights, may be superfluous for a facility dog, too much training is never a bad thing.
Although there are no guarantees when it comes to placing dogs, it’s a tricky business that benefits from years of experience. There is really no substitute for this experience. And while I don’t mean to jinx Barrett, it seems Hennepin County has placed the cart before the dog. (The facility before the dog?)
Hopefully it works out for them. Barrett looks like a great candidate.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is an author and retired police detective and teacher (email@example.com).