A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed:
Curled up at my feet, Rally looks up straight into my gaze and whines low and persistently in his throat. My professor and classmates in my history class don’t even notice the disturbance, but I immediately reach for my medication, swallowing my two pills with a chug of water and glancing back down at Rally, whose tiny stub of a tail wags furiously as he lays his head back down, content. The danger has passed.
As a sufferer of chronic hemiplegic migraines, I live my life acutely attuned to my dog’s every movement. Trained as a medical alert service dog, his job is to warn me whenever a migraine attack is impending, and he takes his work very seriously. He is with me every moment of every day, in shopping malls, cafes and classrooms, and even in the most chaotic of settings, remains focused on his work. Without his daily assistance, I would be unable to drive a car, eat at a restaurant or go to the movie theaters without fearing an attack.
Rally is one of the few migraine alert service dogs in the nation. These dogs are highly valued because the ability to tell when a migraine is approaching is an innate talent; it can’t be taught. Similar to diabetic alert dogs that can smell when their handler has low blood sugar, migraine alert dogs can hone in on the scent of serotonin, a chemical that skyrockets when the body is about to have a migraine. By alerting to the danger long before their handlers might feel any symptoms, these dogs can warn them to take preventative medication. When Rally looks up at me and whines, I know I have about two hours before the migraine will strike, and if I can take my medication early enough, I might be able to avoid the stroke-like symptoms and incapacitating pain. For the last year I had dealt with my migraines through drugs and various forms of therapy, but when I heard about migraine alert service animals, I immediately began my research.
In the United States there are many different jobs that service dogs can perform, such as mobility assistance, medical alert, psychiatric help and guiding the blind. They work with soldiers stricken with PTSD and autistic and mentally challenged individuals. They can alert someone with hearing loss that the doorbell is ringing, or warn that a food contains a certain ingredient that will cause an allergic reaction. However, there is no single exam or certification for an animal to become a service dog. This is due, in part, to the huge cost that it would take to form a national standardized training and testing curriculum, and in part because everyone’s disabilities vary in nature. Each service dog is unique, custom trained to fit his handler’s exact needs, and as such, it is necessary that each dog be individually trained.
To qualify needing a service animal, you must have a disability that severely limits your daily activities. A broken leg or a temporary disability does not count. A doctor’s note affirming that you require a service animal is also recommended for housing departments and employers.
Once you decide that the help of a service animal will significantly negate your disability, you must choose how to go about getting one. There are two ways to receive a service dog; the first is via a non-profit organization such as 4 Paws for Ability or Custom Canines. Because the cost of training a service dog is so high, most individuals apply to one of these charitable programs to receive a fully trained service dog. This can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, and depends on the amount of fundraising and financial support you can raise. Another alternative to obtaining a dog from an organization is to train one yourself. This is the path that I chose because I couldn’t find a pre-established program to train migraine alert service dogs, and I wanted to be heavily involved in my dog’s training because animals that are more tightly bonded with their handlers have a better chance of alerting to their migraines.
Now that I had decided to train my own service dog, I needed a perfect candidate. In general, service dogs in training must be at least two years of age, be neutered or spayed, healthy and vaccinated and be completely non-aggressive towards humans and other animals. While this narrowed down my choices from every single dog in the country, I was even further restricted because I was searching for a dog that was born with the ability to sense migraines.
I tried not to be discouraged by the high likelihood that finding my perfect candidate would be akin to finding a needle in a nation-wide haystack, and began to call rescues and shelter organizations. Many times I thought I found a potential dog, only to be deterred; too young, too large, aggressive towards children, too old, the list continued. Fortunately, my search became noticed, and a few weeks before Christmas the Northern California German Shorthaired Rescue contacted me. “I think we’ve found a dog that will fulfill your requirements,” the woman’s voice on the phone said, and my heart soared. Within a few months, after fostering and carefully considering my candidate, I adopted Rally. I was ready to begin the training!
I knew that training Rally to become a service dog would require a monumental amount of work, and I immediately enlisted the aid of two professional trainers. Together we worked extensively with Rally to teach him how to behave in public. The average service animal is taught over fifty commands, most in an effort to render them inconspicuous to the public eye. They don’t bark at passing pets, chase cars or urinate on the carpet. They are attentive to their handler and oblivious to food, other people or distractions. A service dog is taught to heel on and off leash and to lie down beneath a restaurant table or a classroom desk for hours at a time. They can turn off and on lights, push doors open, pull wheelchairs and retrieve specific objects, but the most important command that a service dog can learn is to remain calm; I’ve taken Rally to the shopping malls, up and down elevators, on trains and busses and air planes, and I am continually thankful when his training pays off and he remains focused. Even when fire alarms go off or a car backfires nearby, he knows to stay right at my side.
The decision to get a service dog was very difficult, as it was admitting to both the world and myself that I needed help with my disability, but it was the best choice I ever made. Thanks to Rally and the unwavering support of my family and friends, I am now able to navigate the world without fear of a migraine attack, and that peace of mind is invaluable. Cheryl, who has a mobility-assist service dog, put it best when she says, “Bentley isn’t just a service dog—he’s my best friend. He works hard so that I can live my life to the fullest, and that is a gift that I’ll never be able to fully repay. We are a team.”