September is National Service Dog Month

By Marti Benson

As millions of Americans savor the last days of summer with a hike, a trip over a long weekend, or time puttering in the garden, many will be accompanied by an assistant — who never gets a day off, and is only rewarded with treats.

Highly-trained at assessing their boss’ needs, these professionals are on the job 24/7. September is National Service Dog Month — dedicated to raising awareness, appreciation and support for these tireless workers who provide humans with physical and mental assistance, and precious independence.

National Guide Dog Month was created by actor and pet food entrepreneur Dick Van Patten, in 2008. A lifelong animal lover, Van Patten toured the Guide Dogs of the Desert facility, in Palm Springs, California. While there, he was blindfolded and escorted around the campus by a seeing-eye dog. Van Patten was inspired by the skills and hard work of both the dogs and their handlers.

He was surprised to learn that the cost of training a Guide Dog can be over $30,000—and the length of the schooling is about two years. National Guide Dog Month was launched by Van Patten as a fundraiser to benefit the non-profit Guide Dog schools across the country, and to raise awareness of the Guide Dog community.

Now known as National Service Dog Month, the scope of this event has changed, too. What was then a one-time fundraiser has become a month-long celebration of Service Dogs, and the humans who support them— from puppy raisers and trainers, to veterinarians and behaviorists.

The list of chores these four-legged heroes perform has become increasingly impressive, and the training more complex. Service Dogs still help visually or hearing-impaired owners maneuver their daily lives. Today, however, these incredible animals are regularly tasked with alerting a diabetic to a dangerous drop in blood sugar, recognizing and interrupting an anxiety attack or nightmare for a veteran suffering from PTSD, and reminding owners to take important prescriptions.

While many Service Dogs are still bred for their roles by accredited organizations that raise, train and place them, new paths to becoming a canine assistant are emerging. Owners, usually with the aid of a professional, are teaching their own dogs how to help them.

Inmates in special programs at prisons are fostering and helping train animals with behavioral problems—often from high-kill facilities—to become Service Dogs. Other animal rescue organizations are adopting dogs from shelters to be trained for the job. If chosen, these lucky dogs will be given a second chance— and live their new lives with an equally lucky human.

While they still don’t brush their teeth, can’t make us a cup of coffee, and won’t answer the phone—they are undoubtedly the most beloved workers around. As we celebrate National Service Dog Month, we honor our furry friends for all they do to make our lives better. Thanks, too, to the devoted human teams who help these animals become a success.

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