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Considering a Service Dog for SMA?

Posted on September 27, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Amit M. Shelat, D.O.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

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.

How Service Dogs Can Help People With SMA

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:

  • Retrieving items — If a person uses a wheelchair, experiences muscle weakness, or has difficulty moving around, a service dog can assist with fetching and carrying certain items on command.
  • Supporting mental health — A canine companion can help with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, that come with SMA and other chronic conditions. Interaction with a service animal can reduce anxiety, release stress-relieving chemicals, and lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Helping with wheelchair use — Service dogs can help those in a wheelchair navigate up and down ramps (or even pull the chair up a ramp or sidewalk curb). A dog can also be trained to help a person get into and out of their wheelchair.
  • Assisting with household tasks — Service dogs can learn to answer the door, turn the lights off and on, retrieve medication, open and close doors, run the dishwasher, and more. Having an assistant to take care of these types of tasks can help lighten the daily load for those with mobility or motor issues.
  • Calling for attention or help — If a person with SMA experiences a medical emergency, a dog can bark loudly or otherwise get attention from people nearby. This can help the person receive the aid they need if they are unable to ask for help themselves.

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.

The Pros and Cons of a Service Dog

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.

Pros

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.

Cons

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.

Added Attention in Public

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.

Costs and Care

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.

Factors To Consider Before Getting a Service Dog

The prospect of having a service dog can be very exciting, but there are some factors to carefully consider before applying for one:

  • Cost of the dog and training — Depending on who trains a service dog and whether a training program has an outside grant, the initial investment in a service dog can be thousands of dollars. On top of that, the dog will likely cost at least $1,500 to $2,000 a year (including boarding, additional training, supplies, and medical costs).
  • Sufficiency of indoor and outdoor space — Dogs need space indoors and out, and some spaces aren't large enough to allow a dog to get sufficient exercise. A service dog will also need access to an area outside where they can do their business several times a day.
  • Impact on other pets — Many organizations require that the service dog be the only animal in the house. If you already have and are attached to other pets, this can be an extremely difficult decision to make.
  • Your ability to provide consistent attention and care — Service dogs are like any other dogs in that they need to be groomed, fed, given water, walked, bathed, and more. You or someone else will need to be able and willing to perform these tasks over the animal’s entire lifetime.

Who Trains Service Dogs for SMA?

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.

How To Qualify for a Service Dog

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:

  • Have a documented disability (verified by a doctor like a neurology specialist)
  • Can care for the dog (or live with someone who can do so)
  • Know what they want from the dog or how they would benefit from having it
  • Can participate in training
  • Can command the dog effectively

Some organizations also require recipients to be at least 18 years of age to qualify for a service dog.

How Long Does It Take To Get 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.

Meet Your SMA Team Today

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.

Amit M. Shelat, D.O. is a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Physicians. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeams. Learn more about her here.

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