Cheyenne Curts was getting ready for a doctor’s appointment when she felt the familiar wave of anxiety sweeping over her. Knowing that her anxiety attacks were sometimes accompanied by blackouts, she instinctively tried to make her way to the relative safety of her bed. It wasn’t until she came to later, surrounded by her family and splattered with blood, that she learned that, not only had she not made it to the bed, but she had passed out midstep and collided, face-first, with the hard edge of her TV stand.
The anxiety-induced blackout, which left Curts in need of stitches and with several broken teeth, was just the most recent in a long list of chronic health issues. Born a micro-preemie—a baby born before 26 weeks—Curts had suffered from vision problems since birth, and they had only gotten worse over time. A bout of severe sepsis in 2017 put her in a coma and another six months later increased her vision problems and left her with permanent damage to her joints and organs and, just for good measure, a blood infection.
After that fall, Curts’ medical team decided it was time for her to start the process of matching with a service dog.
“It’s kind of a Russian Roulette with my anxiety,” she explains. “That made it very clear that we needed to look into an alternative where I could be alone and independent safely, and that someone will be there to help me if need be.”
That someone is a Siberian Husky named Mystique—or it will be, anyway, once she finishes the rigorous training process to become a working service dog. That process, unfortunately, has already been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has placed on life as we knew it.
The Waiting Game
In order to fully appreciate the impact—both short- and long-term—of delays in the service dog community, it’s important to understand just how drawn out the process of training and matching prospective service dogs is to begin with. The precise timeline varies depending on a number of factors, from the breed and aptitude of the service dog in training (SDiT for short) to the specific tasks being trained, but, in general, the entire process of training a service dog takes an average of 1-2 years.
In general, the entire process of training a service dog takes an average of 1-2 years.
During the first year of training, candidates learn basic obedience, followed by standard skills required for all service animals—primarily public access training, which ensures the dog knows how to behave appropriately in a variety of public settings, from stores and schools to more crowded, stimulating environments like amusement parks and airports. Only after mastering these “basics” will prospective service dogs start training to perform specialized tasks to assist its handler with their disability. Along the way, at every step in the training process, the prospective service dog can “fail out”—and many do. By the most conservative estimates, a full 50% of the dogs that are bred, socialized, and selected for training will fail to meet the requirements to become a working service dog and some experts estimate the failure rate is actually closer to 75 or 80%.
For many people with disabilities, the coronavirus pandemic—and the quarantines and shutdowns that came with it—has meant delaying the training or matching process, in some cases indefinitely.
Curts says she and Mystique, who is still in-training at Above the Clouds Siberian Service Dogs, were supposed to be united in June, but their match date has been pushed back to mid-July to allow for more time to complete crucial training that was interrupted by COVID-19. Mystique was far enough along in her training program when the pandemic hit the U.S. that the shutdowns’ effect on her training was minimal, but other handlers and SDiTs weren’t so lucky.
Max White was looking forward to matching with her prospective service dog, who will be trained to do heart rate and cortisol alerts, deep pressure therapy, and tactile grounding, among other tasks, when the coronavirus pandemic forced a last-minute change of plans.
“COVID was the reason why I decided to delay getting my dog… We didn’t know when it would be safe for me or even the pup.”
“COVID was the reason why I decided to delay getting my dog,” the 19-year-old explains. “I am high risk and it was during a time of a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know when it would be safe for me or even the pup. We were unsure how [COVID-19] was going to impact my job. We knew the numbers were increasing and increasing fast, and it was scary.”
Training Troubles and Socialization Struggles
Concerns about exposure aren’t the only reason people with disabilities have been forced to make difficult decisions when it comes to beginning the process of working with a SDiT.
“Because of COVID, I had to tell my breeder to hold off on my puppy,” Kalee Taylor, whose future service dog will provide counterbalance for mobility support. “With the quarantines, there was no way I’d be able to socialize or train my dog like I normally would have. The local dog training club was closed, and many dog trainers became unavailable. I didn’t think that’d be fair to the dog.”
The situation could be more than just unfair to a SDiT; it could derail their training and disqualify a dog that, under pre-pandemic circumstances, had the potential to pass the gauntlet of tests required for successful service dogs. Socialization may sound like a throwaway skill on the lengthy list of service dog requirements, but it’s an important foundation, without which, the rest of the program becomes impossible to complete. What’s more, socialization takes place during a finite window of time; the socialization a puppy goes through in its first three months of life shapes the dog’s adult personality and temperament. For potential service dogs, early socialization often includes exposure to crowded public areas—something that’s become impossible in the midst of stay-at-home orders.
“With the quarantines, there was no way I’d be able to socialize or train my dog like I normally would have.”
“We’re looking at dogs that start their training at a very early age—at eight weeks,” Jennifer McCarthy, a fourth generation dog trainer and owner of World Class Dog Training, explains of her work with service animals. “The long-term impacts [of the pandemic] can be great because we’ve had to stop socializing the dogs. All of the areas that we use to train our service dogs that you would normally go to on a daily basis—such as shopping malls, grocery stores, any high impact areas—have been closed. It greatly impacted the dogs.”
McCarthy is one of many professional trainers around the country with expertise in helping people self-train service dogs, an option many are forced to turn to for a myriad of reasons, from years-long waitlists at nonprofits to highly-specialized training needs. Curts, for example, says she struggled to find an organization that trained dogs on tasks related to both PTSD and chronic fainting.
While COVID forced delays among many who were in the process of matching with a prospective service dog, those who are already in the middle of the lengthy training process have had to adjust on the fly and hope for the best.
“Right now, as a dog trainer, I cannot go into somebody’s home,” McCarthy says. “If my clients with service dogs have a dog that has a specific need inside the home, I can’t really go to see them. So we’re basically in a holding pattern.”
David Burry, the managing director of Compass Key Dog Training, which specializes in helping people through the self-training process and currently has 250 service dog/handler teams in training, agrees that the pandemic has made training difficult.
“It’s not only a challenge, it’s quite impossible,” he says of working with SDiTs who are in the phase of training that focuses on public access. “We’re doing the best we can, under the circumstances, and adding distractions as best we can, but it’s definitely not the same.”
The Long-Term Impact
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on service dogs and the people who need them to lead full lives remains to be seen, but Burry is optimistic about the current crop of SDiTs ability to weather the pandemic.
“It’s impossible to really tell what the long term effect is, but I don’t think we’re going to lose a whole generation of service dogs. I think, at worst, we’re losing a couple of months for most dogs,” he says, adding that puppies who have gone through their key socialization period during the pandemic may be the exception. “A dog has to, in those first five months, be subjected to many different environments. If we can’t properly socialize puppies in those first few months, then some of those dogs may develop issues later in life that are going to keep them from being effective service dogs.”
“I know a service dog is going to make my life easier and safer to live. It will give me confidence throughout the day/”
While the overall impact may seem small in retrospect after life returns to “normal” post-pandemic, for the people with disabilities who need assistance animals, many of whom have also been among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus themselves, it’s hard to see the pandemic’s effect on the service dog community as inconsequential.
“The delay made me really depressed at first. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t clean, eat, sleep, or practice basic hygiene. It crushed me,” White says. “I know a service dog is going to make my life easier and safer to live. It will give me confidence throughout the day and help manage the medical and psychiatric issues that I have to deal with every single day.”
For her part, Curts is just thankful to be so close to meeting Mystique and enjoying the added independence a service dog will bring to her life, even though COVID-19 means she’ll have to put in extra work when that happens.
“I know [COVD-19] impacted the trainers’ ability to work with Mystique in public, which is unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can really do about it. I’ll just have to put in extra work here with her—which is fine,” she says. “It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but I am so thankful for everything it has put me through.”