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A Girl’s Best Friend: My Kid’s Life with a Service Dog

I’ll admit this right upfront: I come from a family of animal lovers. I grew up with a menagerie of pets; dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits, snakes, and trust me, I could go on. We even named the lizards we caught in the river bottom in Ventura, Calif., even though we knew we needed to release them the next day, per Mom’s rule. Mike and I have two dogs now, and they rule our lives and hog most of the covers on our bed.

A little Abcde and a little Pup-cake. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
A little A. and a little Pup-Cake. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

So, when I started to date my husband, I was fascinated to learn about my future sister-in-law’s guide dog. Blind from childhood, my sister-in-law was the youngest person to be assigned a guide dog in California – that was almost 30 years ago. Over the decades, her “girls” have been her constant companions and vital members of the family (though I will tell you, one was a major napkin stealer at restaurants; if you didn’t pay attention to that napkin in your lap, it would be gone in seconds!).

Today, you can find guide dogs and service animals trained to aid people with a number of disabilities, including blindness, autism, diabetes, epilepsy and PTSD, just to name a few. More and more, I am seeing service animals come to the aid of both adults and children. I have learned a lot about how to treat and respect guide dogs when they are working in public, meaning they are wearing a vest or harness. I also have realized that a lot of people and children are not aware of the dos and don’ts of service animals: for example, first and foremost, don’t pet them!

Abcde and Pup-cake on a shopping trip. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
A. and Pup-Cake on a shopping trip. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

This month I wanted to talk to Reno Mom Blog readers about service animals, so I sat down with Kori Santos to chat about her daughter’s service dog, Pup-Cake, who they have had for five years. Kori is married to my longtime friend Rock Da Mullet, a brilliant social media guru and all together wonderful guy. Together, they have a gorgeous little girl, six-year-old A., who was diagnosed with autism at a very young age.

First, Kori, before we get into the whys, what fors, and dos and don’ts: is there anything special you would like to me mention about your experiences with Pup-Cake and the need for understanding service animals?

I feel that it is very important for people to understand that not all disabilities have a “look;” some disabilities cannot be seen by the average person.

That is a great point to start on, and a great reminder! So, tell Reno moms: why does A. need a service Dog?

Breaktime while shopping with Abcde. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
Break time while shopping with A. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

A. has autism, and with this comes an array of issues that make life increasingly difficult. While autism means different things to the people who live with it, for A. it means that she struggles with daily life. It puts her in a place where self-injurious behavior is comforting, where simple things like working in a classroom setting are impossible and where placing herself in constant danger makes sense. This is just a small glimpse into the day-to-day issues she encounters.

How is Pup-Cake used on a daily basis?

Pup-Cake the service dog keeps A. out of the danger she constantly finds herself in. Some of this danger may be self -inflicted and some she may enter into unknowingly.  The service animal’s job is to keep A. safe from any harm (self-inflicted or other), and intercept the various tendencies that go along with autism.

Why is Pup-cake vital to helping A. cope with the everyday world?

Pup-cake and her Girl out and about. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
Pup-Cake and her Girl out and about. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

Pup-Cake not only intercepts the autistic tendencies that A. struggles with on a daily basis, but also keeps her safe.  Her service animal will alert us should A. try to exit the home, and will keep her close while out in public.

What type of training did the dog have before becoming part of your family?

As you know, service animals go through a series of extensive training to be able to complete their individualized task, and Pup-Cake is no different. Our service animal started at BullNannies.  It was at this first stop that Pup-Cake worked on early hyper-socialization.  Pup-Cake was exposed to all types of animals, assessed for prey drive, handled and received early social experiences with everything from ducks and cats, to rabbits and all sizes and shapes of dogs.  Of course, the training continued after this first stop and continued for upwards of two years.

Some service animals take longer to train than others. It depends on the quickness of the dog and the task it is being trained to perform.  Each dog is a case-by-case basis, just as their handlers are.

Because of my sister-in-law, I know major things about interacting with service animals – like, don’t pet or distract the dog when it is working, meaning when the harness and vests are on. Any other advice on how to behave around these dogs?

A paw from a friend. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
A paw from a friend. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

I did not realize how little people understand about service animals until we started to use one. We have found that it can be somewhat difficult to go about our day-to-day activities with an animal in service.  However, if I had the chance to make a request to others, they would be these:

  • When a person has an animal of service, chances are their lives are already difficult enough. That person is doing whatever they can to lead a normal life, so please do not make it more difficult.
  • When an animal is out in service, it is NOT helpful to:
    • Point (it draws more attention to the person who is trying to blend in)
    • Stare (it’s rude)
    • Stop in front of the dog to take pictures (stopping a disabled person can affect their stride or become uncomfortable)
    • Throw things at the dog, not even treats (it will distract the animal and is degrading to the handler)
    • Take pictures in a sneaky manner (we know)
    • Attempt to distract the dog (it won’t work)
    • Push your children into the dog to pet it (chances are you will be offended when I stop your child, so save us both the frustration)
    • Otherwise make the handler feel like any less  of a person.
Cake with Pup-Cake. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.
Cake with Pup-Cake. Photo courtesy of the Santos family.

Thanks for sharing your experience and tips with us Kori!

I am hoping with posts likes this one that more people will understand that service dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds and are used for lots of different reasons and disabilities. Then Pup-cake and the Santos family won’t have to deal with discrimination like they recently had to at Tom’s Farm in Corona, Calif.

I love to follow Pup-Cake’s adventures on Facebook, and love that she refers to Kori and Rock as her “leashracks” and A. her “Girl.” Check out Pup-cake’s profile here. Her patience is amazing and her constantly changing pedicure is very fashionable.

For more about service animals and the kids they help every day, check out BullNannies, Guide Dogs of the Desert, the The Epilepsy Foundation, Shorty’s Pitbull Rescue and 4Paws4ability.

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About Shelle Murach

Shelle Murach
Shelle Murach has been an Aunt since 1985. She specializes in saying things like, “Should that child be doing that to her brother?” “Where did that juice box go?” "Can Aunt Shelle have some of your Cheez-its?” She is an expert at attending dance recitals, soccer games and ice skating competitions all while clapping or cheering at the appropriate moments.While she is very good at passing out cake at birthday parties, due to an unfortunate incident with a stick, her husband has made her promise to never again help with piñatas. Something about lawsuits and personal injury nonsense. She precariously balances being a full-time Aunt with a career in PR and has found that many of her client management skills can also be used on her various nieces and nephews. She is very excited to be part of Reno Mom’s Blog where she will focus on the Reno food and events scene, booster seats and face paint are optional. You can check out her blog at Care & Feeding in Reno, where she desperately needs to post some new stories and recipes. Trust me, she knows, it is on the list.

3 comments

  1. I am legally blind. I have a small amount of vision in my left eye. I use a guide dog to get around. Without her I would be trapped at home. My dog is a pure breed guide dog. She received over two years of training. We then trained together at the school for three months. My dog cost’s thirty thousand dollars.

    I am very concerned about the large number of people who claim their pets are service dogs. They do not have a need for a service dog and the dog received no training. One woman claims her pet pig is a service dog and was upset when her pig could not fly free.

    I know this girl is cute. I really wonder if pup cake is more of a pet and protection then service dog. What would happen if a baby in a stroller pulls it’s tail? It happens at least once a month. Or some rude, self centered, non thinking, air headed teenager on a skate board rides between the girl or her dog. Another frequent occurrence. Will the pit bull switch to protection mode and give a warning bite to the baby or teenager? I feel the teenager deserved it but that is not a defense. Can the girl control a dog that weighs as much as she is? My guide dog has been breed going back twenty eight generations among other things, not to bark, not to defend. She has never barked and has been provoked many times but has never acted aggressively. She is by my side when we leave the house. She is kept under complete control with a harness and three foot leash. I am able to physically control her.

    Yes I know the girl is cute and in need, that pup cake is a wonderful rescue dog. Is pup cake a necessary service dog or a pet and companion a best friend? I do not hate. Should pup cake stay home or in the car, or should he go with her to school, places where pets are not allowed? Is their any even the most remote chance of pup cake reacting to my guide dog? If pup cake reacts for any reason can the girl control him completely? It could mean the life of a guide dog or baby in a stroller that saw something to pull?

    Do you understand my concern? Do you see the danger of people calling their pets service aimals so they can bring them everwear?

  2. I love that pit bulls are increasingly seen as service dogs. If ever a breed needed some positive PR . . .

  3. Again there is nothing wrong with pit bulls being trained as service dogs. Unfortunay just because you tack on the name the service dog to your pet does not make it a service dog. The group that rescued this dog says very clearly that pup cake is a companion/pet dog and is. Not a service dog. This is a fraud and a scam. Pup cake is a trained guard dog. When pup cake mauled some kid for bourse playing to close. The head lines will read service dog mauls innocent child. The next day there will be signs in every store saying no service cd dogs. Then people with real service dogs will not be able too buy groceries

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