by Molly Neher
Assistance dogs — also known as service dogs — provide major quality of life improvements for people with a wide range of disabilities. However, there are currently many barriers preventing people from obtaining a properly trained service dog. Indeed, while the U.S. service dog population is not formally tracked, estimates suggest that less than one percent of the 56.7 million Americans reporting a disability in the last census use a service dog.
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization hoping to change that. “We strive to eliminate obstacles to obtaining an assistance dog and help anyone who qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act to obtain a certified assistance dog,” says Michael Kolar, president of Atlas Assistance Dogs. “We believe that anyone who can benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.”
There are currently several ways someone with a disability can obtain a service dog. Some nonprofits provide dogs with some or considerable training free of charge, others request in-kind donation. Similarly, for profit organizations can provide dogs with some or considerable training, as well as offer group or private training. Finally, dog owners may choose to self-train their dogs. They can do this with the help of organizations or train on their own.
While there are many paths to obtaining or training a service dog, and many organizations trying to help, considerable unmet needs remain. Waitlists for organizations that provide dogs are extremely long, and someone might have to wait several years before even meeting their dog, meaning that the client has little to no involvement or influence in the training process, and might not receive support once they receive the dog. Other barriers include organizations that are often disability and/or breed-specific, or might serve a restricted geographical area.
Atlas believes that a strong, trusting and communicative client-trainer relationship is key to successfully training a service dog. Atlas Certified Trainers are kept to the highest standards. They work with all types of disabilities, all dog breeds, and most importantly, all people across the United States. Each client is fully engaged and supported throughout the training process and afterwards as a working team. Atlas encourages new trainers to apply for certification and welcomes clients who have existing trainers or wish to participate in a large part of their dog’s training.
Service dogs are increasingly benefiting people with disabilities worldwide. However, so much more can still be done to increase the number of people they could help. A push for accessibility, awareness and humane creative approaches is just a start.
After developing a seizure disorder during her freshman year of college, Molly Neher was able to return to the University of Oregon to attain a degree in anthropology and psychology with the help of her service dog, Reid. She now has a passion for raising awareness about disabilities and service dogs and is on the board of directors for Atlas Assistance Dogs. For more information visit AtlasDog.org.