PLAINVIEW, TX — September is service dog awareness month, and local service dog trainers said they’ve seen a spike in business during the pandemic.
Service dog owners and their trainers emphasize that passersby should treat these highly skilled canines as workers rather than pets and ignore them — unless they’re barking and indicating their companion is in distress.
“If [my service dog is] distracted by passersby or people [saying] ‘Oh you’re so cute!’ or that want to pet him, [his job] becomes impossible for him … but if you see a person in distress or you hear a service dog barking, please check that out, they need help,” Jennifer Riley, a service dog owner, said
For Riley, her service dog is a lifeline. Three years ago, the Plainview High School theater director was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a condition that affects the muscles and makes tasks like walking long distances, grasping things and even breathing daily challenges.
“It causes very weak muscles, and the more I use a muscle, the weaker it gets,” Riley said.
So she turned to a service dog to help her out with her daily routine. Now, she says that three-year-old Beckett has changed her life.
“It really is unbelievable what he is to me,” Riley said.
Beckett opens doors for Riley, helps her get up from chairs, picks things up she’s dropped and even predicts when she’s going to have a weak spell or a crisis where her breathing muscles stop working.
“Him being able to alert [me before a spell] when we’re together, it just gives you the freedom to live an independent life,” Riley said.
He will also lick her hand to keep her conscious until help arrives if she gets too weak.
However, she said that while having a service dog has brought a semblance of normalcy back to her routine, living a “normal life” gets tricky when people forget that service dogs are workers and not pets.
“I want to be able to go and get groceries without it being a sideshow,” Riley said.
Raylee Davis, founder of South Plains Service Dogs and Beckett’s trainer, said that strangers approaching someone with a service dog with questions is a violation of privacy.
“Someone coming up and asking you, ‘Oh well why do you have this dog?’ People don’t realize how personal a question that is, but you’re asking someone to tell you about their medical problems,” Davis said.
During the pandemic, Davis said that there’s been a growing demand for service dogs — something she attributes to a greater number of people being home and adopting dogs.
She added that there’s also a growing need for autism service dogs, mobility service dogs and PTSD dogs not just for veterans but also for women and children who’ve suffered trauma.
Labs and golden retrievers are the best breeds for this line of work, and she said that while you can buy a dog pre-trained, it’s cheaper to train the dog yourself with a professional. However, she warns that not all dogs are born service dogs.
“I did not honestly have high hopes for Beckett,” Davis said of their training at first.
Riley, Davis and Beckett trained at least once a week for two years until he was ready — an accomplishment that surprised Davis.
“Beckett was amazing and very laid back, very responsive … Somebody had trained him before they dumped him,” Davis said.
As a puppy, Beckett was dumped in a Plainview shelter, so just as Riley saved him from a life in a cage, she said that he saved her too.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was the bond … You become so dependent on each other. It’s a really sacred bond that we have. He can’t be without me. I can’t be without him. It’s a very precious thing,” Riley said, holding back tears.