Special Reports

Service & Therapy Dogs: Man's best friend going above and beyond

Only on ABC7 Service and therapy dogs...

EL PASO, Texas - Providing love and comfort is in a dog's description, but every day, service dogs and therapy dogs go way beyond to fill a critical need. 

"Ranger, on a scale of 1-10, he's probably like a million," said Katie Ellis.

Ellis and her service dog, Ranger, have a special, unbreakable bond. Ellis is visually impaired and has post-traumatic stress disorder. She depends on Ranger to help ease her anxiety.

Jared Latham, the lead trainer and facility manager at American Service Dogs in Las Cruces. He trained Ranger to meet Ellis' specific needs, depending on the dog, it can take months or years.

"We do brace and balance, replace a cane, crutch, walker, wheelchair, med retrieval, retrieval-based tasks, touch-based tasks, so opening power assist doors, pull-based tasks, pulling and opening drawers, cabinets."

Service dogs, unlike therapy dogs and emotional support dogs, are protected under the American Disabilities Act and are allowed anywhere their owner goes. A violation is a misdemeanor.

ADA laws are not heavily enforced, which can lead to confusion, and sometimes, even abuse. 

"So, anyone can self-train a service dog, but they still have to meet the definition. A lot of people don't follow through and meet that definition," said Latham said.

Service dogs do not bark, they are not easily distracted and are never aggressive.

"A job of a service dog is a medical device," Ellis said. "Just like I'm sitting in my wheelchair, that's a medical device. Do you think my wheelchair is fake? No. So is a service dog fake? No. So if you claim to put service dog on your pet, you're saying you have a disability."

Ellis tells ABC-7 Ranger makes her feel at ease. While he's there to serve a specific role in her life, she didn't realize she'd be getting a best friend in return.

"Having a service dog you don't feel like you're different. You may have challenges but you're not different. The dog is there to make sure you have as normal a life as possible."

Therapy dogs have a different job, but still have important duties. They don't perform specific tasks, they provide comfort in group settings.  Both must have good a good temperament, and both therapy dogs and service dogs can be of any breed. Service dogs undergo months or even years of training, while therapy dogs must have basic manners and obedience. 

Alvin, Simon, Goofy and Regis visit students at Zach White Elementary School, helping students who struggle to read. Librarian Jennifer Brownell has invited the dogs for nearly nine years. 

"They smile, they're happy, they're excited to read. I've had students come in and say they hate reading and working with the therapy dogs and later on seeing them avid readers. Does the therapy dog have everything to do with it? Probably not. But I definitely think it has something tt do with it," Brownell said. 

At Andress High School, dogs like Rebel help students build confidence.

"The dog is just there to listen. The dog's not going to make fun of him is he doesn't kow how to say a word, mispronounce a word," Rebel's owner, Francisco Romero said.

At the Hospitals of Providence, Enzo visits patients every week. Nursing Director Damian Campos says dogs like Enzo play a crucial role in the healing process of his patients. 

"It gives them that calmness and distracts them from whatever else is going on at that moment. Medically and physically, it's just a little bit of a distraction, feeling love emotions and I think that helps them heal," Campos said.

According to Paws for Love, petting a therapy dog can lower blood pressure, relieve stress and ease anxiety.

Dr. Sabine Lovell, a chief resident for the Department of Surgery at Emory University School of Medicine researched the impact service dogs and therapy dogs have on people. She found the simple act of petting animals promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all hormones that can play a part in elevating your mood.

Then there is a middle-ground, therapy-assisted dogs. Tucker and Linus work with clients at Enjoy Your Life Recreational Therapy.

"They play a much more specific role in that they are working towards a therapy goal," Alyssa Gary, a therapeutic recreational therapist said.

Gary says the dogs undergo service dog training, but fall under the therapy dog realm because they're trained to work with any individual they encounter, but more closely than a regular therapy dog.

"In working with kids with autism. A lot of times, we're working on social skills, we're working on transitions to new spaces without having meltdowns, we're working on getting more exercise...grooming, brushing zippers, all of those different things to work on the fine motor skills," Gary said.

Gary encourages her clients to build a relationship with the dogs, by completing small tasks, in order to build their self-esteem.

"I genuinely believe that dogs are a gift from god. That they are an opportunity for us to experience unconditional love. 

Gary says the change she sees in her clients is evident and they're forever changed. Physically,  emotionally, psychologically, these healing hounds may help more than words can say.

"The more you work with dogs, the more you appreciate them," Gary said.

There is a great need for therapy dogs in El Paso.There are three major therapy dog registries,

The American Kennel Club, which does not certify therapy dogs, has a therapy dogs program, partnering with organizations who register therapy dogs. The program information can be found HERE. In order to receive the AKC Therapy Dog Title, they must be certified with the organizations found HERE.

The dogs that volunteer at Zach White Elementary School and Andress High School were involved in Therapy Dogs International. Information on certification and registration information for TDI can be found HERE. Their Facebook page also includes helpful information.

Enzo is a volunteer with Paws for Love or Pet Partners, another therapy dog program. Registration info can be found HERE.