Joy Pitts says she had no idea a single dog could impact her life has much as it has. Pitts, a single mom to 4-year old daughter Olivia, is referring to her family’s 2-year old service dog, Maggie.
Maggie, who boasts a beautiful golden coat as well as an energetic personality, is tasked with caring for Pitts’ most prized possession, Olivia.
Due to birthing complications, Olivia has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects the part of the brain that controls muscle movement and balance. More recently, Olivia has been diagnosed with epilepsy, which Pitts said is a chronic disorder that very commonly impacts those suffering from CP.
“Olivia’s seizures are different in that they’re not characterized by the typical convulsions that people equate to seizures,” Pitts said. “In her case, Olivia will dawn a blank stare, and it becomes obvious that there’s a disconnect between her brain and the rest of her body.”
It was the onset of these seizures and the Sensory Processing Disorder that developed as a consequence that caused Pitts to begin her research into the possibility of acquiring a service dog, eventually leading her to local dog trainer Carlos Ramirez.
Ramirez said that immediately upon meeting Pitts and her daughter, he knew a service dog is what they needed to completely change their lives.
“I knew that I could find the perfect dog for them,” Ramirez said. “Olivia, to me, was a classic case where getting a service dog would be the best thing for her.”
Acquiring Maggie, however, would prove to be a little more difficult than anticipated. As a dog trainer, Ramirez’s process is always the same. He first meets the family to discuss whether or not a service dog would be the right fit for them. If so, he then determines which dog breed best matches the needs of the person in need of service.
Upon selection of breed, Ramirez will travel just about anywhere in the world to find the perfect puppy. Ramirez explained that because of the importance placed on these medical alert dogs, puppies must be bred in order to pass down important genetic characteristics that might be essential in saving someone’s life, which makes them costly.
It’s only when Ramirez has the perfect puppy that he begins what he calls “master training,” when he not only teaches the dog basic obedience but also trains the dog to assist with any medical conditions based on the needs of the family. In the case of Olivia and Maggie, Maggie has been trained not only to assist Olivia in the case she experiences a seizure but also to alert her mother the second it happens.
Master training takes upwards of a year to complete, said Ramirez, who explained that due to the specialized nature of the training, he takes only one dog in at a time.
It’s this lengthy specialized process, combined with the already high costs of purchasing a medical alert dog, that makes acquiring a service dog a very expensive endeavor that costs $10,000 and up.
Unfortunately, the costly yet often necessary medical tool is not covered by insurance companies, and organizations that provide service dogs have extensive waiting lists spanning years at a time.
The self-determined Pitts, however, was not going to let this get in the way. By setting up a GoFundMe page in February 2015, Pitts was able to surpass her goal of $10,000 in just 30 days.
“It was amazing; I was truly blown away by the generosity of this community,” Pitts said. “So many people from all over, people who were total strangers to me and my daughter, were donating money, and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Since Maggie’s arrivals into their lives, Pitts said nothing has been the same for her and her daughter.
Once a dog completes master training, Ramirez will gradually begin to acclimate him or her into a new home and a new family. In the case of Maggie and Olivia, the acclimation took no time. Ramirez recalled that Maggie was able to pick up on Olivia almost instantly, and the two have been almost inseparable since.
“The part I didn’t expect was how Maggie has become such an important therapy tool for Olivia,” Pitts said. “When Olivia gets anxious or overwhelmed for whatever reason, she’ll seek Maggie out and uses Maggie to re-center herself. As her mom, it’s such an amazing thing to witness because it gives me peace of mind knowing that if I’m not with her, she has someone else to count on.”
Ramirez explained that while Maggie wasn’t necessarily trained to assist Olivia in this way, that’s where the importance of genetics and breeding come into play and have allowed Maggie to become so in tune with Olivia’s needs.
“It’s in her blood to do this,” Ramirez said. “She was meant to impact someone’s life like this.”
Things become unorthodox when it comes to who exactly is in charge of being Maggie’s handler. It’s typical in situations where someone has a service dog that the person receiving the assistance is the person in charge of the handling. Due to Olivia’s young age, however, this is not the case for the Pitts family.
“Maggie knows that I’m in charge but that Olivia is the person she’s looking out for,” Pitts said. “Olivia does know her commands and how to handle her per se, but Maggie will always look at me for confirmation when Olivia asks her to do something. She’s incredibly intelligent.”
It’s Maggie’s connection with Olivia and her incredible intelligence that has not only Pitts in awe but other people as well.
Traveling everywhere but school with Olivia, it is clear Maggie’s training has made her well-versed on how to ignore other people and keep her main focus on the well-being of Olivia.
Pitts said that the most difficult part of having Maggie is dealing with a general public that is largely unaware of the proper etiquette when it comes to service dogs. According to Pitts, the biggest thing people can’t seem to understand is that they are not allowed to pet Maggie.
“I’ve gotten looks and comments from people when I tell them I’m not comfortable with them petting Maggie,” Pitts recalled. “It’s hard because what people don’t realize is that if I let them start petting her and distracting her, then she’s not focused on Olivia and anything could happen in those matter of seconds.”
Reinforcing this belief, Ramirez said that allowing the dog to be pet by strangers can be equated to teaching the dog a bad habit and, more commonly, confusing him or her about when and in what situations they can or cannot be petted.
Further propelling this state of confusion surrounding the dog service industry is the intrusion of dog owners who falsely label their pets as service dogs through third-party websites where people can pay to “certify” their dogs as medical or emotional support dogs.
This duplicitous behavior has caused problems not only for people like Olivia who truly need their service dogs but also for business owners who are terrified to question the validity of the dog.
Legally, business owners are allowed to ask service dog owners only two specific questions. The first is whether or not the dog is a service dog and if so, what task the dog has been trained to perform. Ramirez considers these questions to be okay in a situation where the service dog is indeed a service dog but unhelpful in situations where the dog is just a poser.
This ambiguity leaves business owners in fear of questioning anyone who might take legal action against them and leave them open to multiple lawsuits.
Ramirez, however, said there are telltale signs for spotting a real service dog from a fake service dog.
“Obedience is key,” he said. “If you see an owner pulling or tugging on the dog’s leash to get them to do something or to get their attention, that’s not a service dog. These dogs undergo extensive training on obedience so that with one word from their handler, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
For Pitts, the real frustration comes at the hands of people who move past the superficial and begin to question whether or not her daughter truly needs Maggie and probe as to her medical condition.
“I don’t mind the questions in regards to Maggie and what she’s capable of doing when it’s from an educational perspective,” Pitts explained. “But, when it starts to get invasive in regards to my daughter and her medical condition, that’s where I draw the line.”
While Maggie has been more than Pitts and her daughter could have ever hoped for, both Pitts and Ramirez agree that the public needs more education when it comes to service dogs.
“I wish the public was better educated as to how to react when they see Maggie; she’s this incredible dog who’s created an amazing bond with my daughter,” Pitts said. “But, what people have to understand is that she’s there for a reason, in many ways I trust her with my daughter’s life, and I wish this was something everyone knew and could respect.”