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The Garrison Blog

When a Dog is not just a Dog, an outsider’s perspective.

I learnt something new this year, there are times when a dog is not just a dog!

Yes, they still look the same but when they have that special coat on, the one with writing on it, they are working dogs, they are someone’s eyes, ears, hands, and/or physical/mental support.

We all know about Guide Dogs, they have been around for years, in fact since 1950 when Dr. Arnold Cook arrived in Australia with the first Guide Dog. I have always associated Labradors with being seeing eye or guide dogs until this year.


Turbo Veteran Assistance Dog


So, what has changed?

Meeting members of The Garrison Community and their service/assistance dogs, and like their humans, they come in all shapes and sizes.

When I first met Turbo I nearly did it, I nearly reached out and gave him a pat but I stopped myself, but I was almost there, I made eye contact and almost verbal acknowledgment before my husband stopped my faux-paw with a “he’s working don’t talk to him”. 

It is hard, it’s hard to not pat the puppy, to not acknowledge them in any way when they enter the room with their human, it is hard to not think that they aren’t happy with their big puppy dog eyes waiting patiently, it is hard to not praise them when they are behaving or helping. And by behaving, I mean, not jumping around excited to see you, not barking at other dogs and not wandering off like they do not have a care in their world.


What I have learnt 

  • Approach the service dog’s owner/handler giving the dog space
  • Never touch a service dog without asking permission from the owner
  • If you see someone with their dog and they do not acknowledge you, then both may be in training and cannot afford the distraction
  • Never offer food to a service dog
  • Importantly, if a service dog approaches you and they are alone, they need your help, follow them
  • Sometimes you will see a dog interacting with its handler differently, this is often the dog hard at work while no-one else is any the wiser

And finally, when an assistance dog is not working, they love pats, have a favourite toy that they love to play with … and they are just like any other dog.  No jacket usually means they are off the clock and the dogs are very different from when they are at work.


Dog in a Coat

Matt Tolson works with his service dog Turbo so we asked him a few questions:


So how do service dogs work?

Each service dog will be trained to perform certain tasks and conduct activities that assist their handler in their day to day lives.  These tasks are as varied as the dogs and handlers so each team will have their own list of tasks.  Not everyone will be comfortable discussing this so be cautious if you have questions but an example is when my PTSD symptoms start to present, Turbo will try to distract and calm me down.  To an outsider, this probably looks like a bloke just playing with a boisterous dog but people that know me, know it's a sign that I'm stressed by something and Turbo is working his butt off.

It really is not that many years ago that I was basically crippled by my PTSD.  I had a number of severe panic attacks, anger issues, terrible sleep, I was heavily medicated at times and it got to the point that I couldn't function, even going and getting some groceries was too much to handle. 

My first service dog, Hades, was trained to help me and with his support, I slowly started to be able to do just normal things, like go to the post office and line up to pick up parcels, Hades would stand lengthways in the line so that people couldn't line up close behind me and on the occasions where something happened and I had a moment, he was there to help me deal with it, calm back down and get out without most people having any idea I was unwell.  That gave me the confidence to take risks and push my boundaries, over time that momentum built to where I was able to do enough normal things that I was in a position to start learning tools to better manage my PTSD.


How do you get a service dog?

There are a few access streams available to veterans but each person's situation is different so which one is best for the individual may vary.

I already had a suitable dog as a pet originally so it was a case of joining a program, training that dog up to do the job, and passing all the required tests.  The big one was getting him certified so that I was protected by law and covered by insurance.

Turbo was carefully selected from a litter and started his training from 6 weeks old.  It takes hundreds of hours of training and a couple of years for that puppy to grow up enough to start the serious training and begin working.  Turbo is part of the Mind Dog program but there are many other providers that could help you.  There are also programs through DVA where veterans with certain conditions and that meet the criteria are able to access a dog trained by an external service provider such as Smart Pups but that wasn't available when I was needing to replace my retiring service dog and because I have a dog, I am not eligible for DVA support in any form.  Whichever way you go about it, it's not a quick fix but in my experience, the best treatment that my wife and I have found.


Can any dog become a service dog?

No, while there is not a designated breed of dog required, there are many traits that are more or less desirable in a service dog, and careful breed and temperament selection will stack the odds of getting a suitable dog qualified.  Before you just go get a dog, find an organisation and certifier that can guide you through their process.  Yet again, your individual circumstances and requirements will affect their recommendation.


Have you ever been refused entry to a public place?

Yes.  Even though it is against the law to forbid access for a service dog, a few times I have come across people that have refused access.  Often, they just haven't looked at the jacket so don't realise it's a service dog, or sometimes they have no idea what a service dog is.  Normally a quick explanation, show them my ID for the dog and things are all good but sadly there have been a small number of people that have caused issues.  There is support available for handlers that are wrongfully discriminated against and there can be serious fines for the individual and businesses involved but so far by disengaging, getting some support, and talking to management, we've been able to resolve most of the issues.


How do you go dealing with the general public?

By and large, people are willing to do the right thing if you ask them.  There will always be someone that will break etiquette and pat or distract your dog at some point but fortunately, service dogs are becoming increasingly common so more and more people are aware of appropriate interactions.  For me, as long as people ask and respect my answer, that's great.  Those that don't I'll address it but I try to take an educational angle and try to explain what service dogs are and how they are meant to interact, or not interact as the case may be.  Every team has a different level of what they're comfortable with so just ask the handler before you try to pat or otherwise engage a dog that's wearing a jacket, pretty simple.


Meet some of the Garrison’s service/assistance dogs.