Johanna Benthal's service dog, Rae with her before an MRI in 2017. Photo: Eileen Benthal

Johanna was eight when she received her first service dog from Canine Companions for Independence —Jo was paired with a sweet yellow lab named Taffy. Taffy was a cuddly love and the first service she provided for Johanna at home was as a distraction from the intense headaches. As Jo lie on the couch, Taffy would lay on top of her and the counter-pressure of this obedient and well-behaved dog calmed Johanna and soothed her pain.

Taffy also had all these nifty tricks like helping to pull out the chair from the table and retrieve items off the floor and present them for Jo. Hide and seek was also a fun game to play with Taffy. All my kids enjoyed sending Taffy through our large house to have her find Johanna. We also taught her to find and go to other members of the family by name so Jo could use Taffy to get our attention when she needed us.

Those same skilled tasks Taffy provided at home served Johanna well in public places — even where dogs were not allowed to go. Taffy also became a social bridge for Jo —opening up conversations with people who may not have spoken to her without this well-trained dog at her side.

This skill served to be especially comforting at night when I was awakened by a wet nose and followed Taffy into Johanna’s room where I was needed. It gave me and Jo’s older sister comfort in knowing we could sleep more soundly with Taffy on as “night nurse.”

When it was time to retire Taffy and when she was laid to rest, CCI supported us the whole way through. Then they encouraged us in the second application process for a successor dog and 11 years after our first CCI graduation, Rae, a yellow lab retriever, took Taffy’s place at Jo’s side.

Johanna and Taffy, 2015

CCI saw Jo’s young adult needs for a dog that could travel well because we are always on the go — for medical appointments or hospitalizations and for speaking at conferences and other venues. Rae is well-suited for all aspects of public access and provides the same skilled tasks for Johanna in public as she does at home.

While CCI service dogs are trained with specific tasks, they can be additionally trained with other tasks based on the needs of the recipient. As a relationship develops over time, the canine-human bond can also develop to meet new and challenging needs.

Johanna has always had a high risk of seizures. But the frequency and severity of seizures have increased over the years, as demonstrated by the near-fatal grand-mal seizure she suffered a year ago which landed her on a ventilator for 30 hours to keep her breathing until they could control the seizures.

While CCI does not train dogs to alert for seizures, Jo’s dog Rae has become adept at detection and response. Though we would never solely rely on the dog to keep Johanna safe — the additional input of paws, a nudge from a cold wet nose and the leverage of her big soft head is welcome assistance in a stressful time.

Rae first demonstrated her keen canine sense last year right before Jo suffered the grand-mal. I had put Jo to bed with Rae sleeping on her legs and feet. But that night Rae kept leaving the bed and coming out of the room, sitting in front of me and staring into my eyes. I checked to see if she needed to go outside, but she wouldn’t leave my side. So I kept trying to put Rae back to bed with Jo, only to have her come back out. Eventually, I closed the bedroom door and told her to stay.

A few minutes later, I went into the room because we thought we heard Jo call out — only to find Rae in an alert stance by her side as Jo was in a grand mal seizure. In retrospect, my older daughter — who is now a professional dog trainer and who witnessed Rae’s behavior — and I realized that Rae was trying to alert us to the seizure before it was happening.

Photo: Eileen Benthal

Over the past 18 months, Rae has consistently alerted us to Jo when smaller focal seizures happen. Jo also suffers from Parkinsonian or intentional tremors caused by damage to the nerves in the brain. During the focal seizures and tremors, Rae — most times voluntarily —- places her head on Jo’s arms and legs to help to stop the tremor and/or provide comfort and stability until a focal seizure has passed.

These events often happen quietly and go undetected — even by the seizure monitor Johanna wears on her arm. We have been out in public numerous times when Rae has initiated this contact with Johanna as she was seated in a chair, alerting me to Johanna’s need when Jo couldn’t speak for herself.

This is just one of the many reasons it’s very important not to distract a service dog when they are out in the public assisting a person with disabilities. These dogs have important jobs to do and they could miss a cue from their person — like a seizure or intentional tremor or a command to retrieve an item or open a door and place a disabled person at risk.

When we are out in public and someone comes up to ask about Jo’s dog, I always defer the conversation to Johanna — even if it’s going to take her a long time to answer the person’s questions. It’s part of the social skills her CCI dog Rae helps Jo develop as a young adult with disabilities. It’s up to Jo to decide if you can pet her dog — and she always insists “only on the head” because she knows how overbearing some people can get and how Rae could be tempted to distraction by a cute kid or well-intentioned adult.

During these extended hospital stays this past summer, Rae stayed with us for most of the time.

The healthcare professionals all noted how well Rae served Jo, especially providing input at Jo’s side while she walked with a walker and picking items up off the floor. They saw Rae assist Jo during a seizure, placing her head on Jo’s lap and arm until the convulsions subsided. It’s amazing to watch how calm and peaceful Rae remains while her head is bouncing from Jo’s convulsions. Rae knows she has a job to do and seems most happy when she’s at Jo’s side working.

I heard many stories from the nurses of patients bringing their pet dogs in the hospital to act as service dogs. Toileting accidents, barking and aggression — all signs that a dog is stressed — placed patients and others at risk by bringing untrained dogs into a hospital setting. People miss their pets when they are hospitalized for sure. But bringing an untrained animal into any public venue places undue stress on the animal and is a risk to the public.

In the past five years, we encounter untrained animals in public trying to pass as service dogs at least three times a week. About once a week, an untrained dog in a service dog vest will bark at or lunge at Rae and Jo. Most of them are on flex-leads or in strollers or special doggie purses.

Last year a woman was insisting that she and her dog be seated next to us in the bulkhead seating on a flight. I wouldn’t allow it because the dog was obviously not a trained service dog and I didn’t want the dog to distract or threaten Rae. The airlines moved a blind person from their seat to accommodate this woman and her “service dog” who then peed on the floor during the flight.

Under the ADA, service dogs are specially trained to provide specific tasks for people with disabilities. See Department of Justice guidelines on ADA regulations for service dogs. Personally, I believe the law needs to be more clear and allow for more oversight, standards and accountability for what constitutes a service dog in the public.

Pets who provide emotional support are not service dogs and especially should not be allowed on planes. It endangers the public, the dogs and especially highly trained service dogs and people with disabilities when untrained dogs are allowed into public places.

The internet is now rampant with websites that lie to people — selling them service vests and “certifications” which manipulate the law and appear to provide access to well-intentioned and deceitful pet owners.

Canine Companions for Independence has some great resources online which help the general public and service teams to recognize and advocate for training and clarifications which will keep people and canines safe in public. This page offers great information and guidelines for business owners and the general public. .

September is National Service Dog Month. At our house, we will likely celebrate with some extra treats for Rae and maybe even a doggie ice cream from both of the renowned local ice cream stores near us, Snowflake and Magic Fountain.

But the greatest celebrations will come in support of the amazing working bond between Jo and her dog. It’s truly service with a smile — and a wag.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen