Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a condition affecting the body’s neuromuscular system. In people diagnosed with SMA, the degeneration of motor neurons in the spinal cord can impair muscle coordination, movement, and motor functions. This can make certain aspects of everyday life — like getting around independently — more challenging. Some people with SMA use service dogs to help with daily activities. These dogs have been specially trained to assist people living with disabilities in completing certain tasks.
Service dogs for SMA can help in many ways. Here’s what you need to know if you or a loved one is interested in a service dog, including what to consider, how to qualify for a service dog, and how long it may take to be paired with one.
Service dogs can help those living with SMA in several ways. In general, service dogs are likely more useful for people with spinal muscular atrophy type 3 and SMA type 4, although some with SMA type 2 may qualify to have them, too.
Some of the ways service dogs can help those with SMA include:
All of these factors can be combined to improve the quality of life of a person diagnosed with SMA. They can feel more empowered, independent, and secure in their daily lives.
If you’re unsure whether employing a service dog is the right option for you, it may be helpful to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks. Talk to your health care team or neurologist and ask whether they would recommend a service dog for you.
Although it depends on your specific wants and needs, the pros of getting a service dog can be any of the benefits listed above. Be sure to think beyond these benefits and consider the different ways that having a service dog might improve your overall sense of wellness, independence, or empowerment.
Some of the potential drawbacks of using a service dog for SMA include receiving more attention in public, having more expenses, and ensuring the dog receives sufficient attention and care.
Service animals can draw attention when in public places. Although most people mean well, you will need to be prepared to explain your dog’s job. Ask those trying to pet or play with them to stay away while your dog is working. It’s important that your service animal is not distracted while on the job.
Aside from the financial investment of obtaining a service dog, you will need to consider the other aspects of its care that will become a part of your daily routine. Having a dog — whether a service dog or a pet — requires providing a clean, well-kept environment, plenty of food and fresh water, and loving attention. You will also need to make arrangements for the dog’s care if you are away for travel or while receiving medical attention.
The prospect of having a service dog can be very exciting, but there are some factors to carefully consider before applying for one:
Many organizations provide service dogs with skills that are appropriate for people diagnosed with SMA. Some of these organizations may require you to travel to train with or pick up the dog, so you may want to look for organizations close to home.
You can start by looking at Assistance Dogs International — an organization that accredits dog training facilities (and continually assesses them after they have received accreditation). You can search their online database to find an accredited organization near you.
PAWS With A Cause is one well-known service dog training organization. This organization can train a dog to perform certain tasks or assist you on a daily basis. Canine Companions is another organization with experience training dogs for people with all types of physical and mental disabilities or needs.
Every organization has its own set of rules regarding who qualifies for one of its service dogs. Although there are similarities between these rules, the best way to know if you qualify is to find an organization you want to work with and check its requirements.
Typically, these organizations require that recipients:
Some organizations also require recipients to be at least 18 years of age to qualify for a service dog.
Once again, every organization is slightly different. It generally takes at least 12 months to get a service dog, and the process can take up to two years or sometimes longer.
For a PAWS With A Cause dog, for example, the application process can take up to two years, and it can take between one and four years to be matched with a dog. The dog may also need additional training afterward, depending on your needs. Canine Companions, on the other hand, does not specify the length of their waitlist because matching you with the right dog depends on the skills your dog will need to have.
Living with SMA presents its share of daily challenges. The good news is that you’re not alone. On mySMAteam — the social network for people living with SMA and their loved ones — you’ll find people from around the world who are also living with SMA. Here, members ask questions, participate in conversations, and share their journeys of life with SMA.
Are you living with SMA and have a service dog? Are you considering one? Share your experience or tips for applying in the comments below or by posting on mySMAteam.
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