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Canine Companions: Changing Lives One Client at a Time

Living Well

April 03, 2024

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Photography by Heather Paul/Getty Images

Photography by Heather Paul/Getty Images

by Christopher P. DeLorenzo


Medically Reviewed by:

Vincent J. Tavella DVM, MPH


by Christopher P. DeLorenzo


Medically Reviewed by:

Vincent J. Tavella DVM, MPH


Service dogs today do a lot more than you might imagine — and you may be eligible for one.

We’ve all seen them: Service dogs, with their calm demeanors and attentive eyes, sitting calmly by their human companions. And while many of us recognize that these intelligent, loyal creatures are working, we may not truly understand all that they’re capable of.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) distinguishes service animals as dogs that are “individually trained to work or perform specific tasks for a person with a disability.”

“Service dogs can respond to more than forty commands,” says Alanna Flax-Clark, an ambassador for Canine Companions, an organization offering service dog training and placement since 1975. Some of these commands include turning on a light switch, calling an elevator, getting a drink out of the refrigerator, or handing a credit card to a cashier.

Alanna Flax-Clark, an ambassador for Canine Companions, and her Golden Retriever-Labrador service dog Nico.

“Nico can tug,” says Flax-Clark, who uses a wheelchair for mobility and was paired with a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix. “He can tug the laundry basket to the laundry machine, or even tug the laundry out of the machine and hand it to me.”

Nico can also pull her in her wheelchair, which comes in handy when she needs to reserve her arm strength while shopping in stores with long aisles, or when her hands are full.

She can hold onto items while he’s pulling her, or he can carry her items for her. “Nico takes great pride in carrying things for me,” she says.

These dogs can help anyone with mobility concerns, including those with arthritis and those living with other chronic illnesses. And they are capable of so much more.

According to the ADA, tasks can include:

  • guiding people who are blind
  • alerting people who are deaf
  • pulling a wheelchair
  • retrieving objects
  • detecting a seizure and helping the person who is having one
  • reminding a person to take medications
  • calming a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to help with an anxiety attack
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Definitely not all work and no play

In some ways, having a service dog isn’t that different from having any dog as a pet. There’s plenty of time for affection and play, and it’s an important part of caring for the canine companion.

A dog who works all the time would burn out.

Flax-Clark assures us that the balance between play and work is really important. Nico gets walked regularly, has toys, play breaks, and play dates with other dogs. But he will respond to a command at any time. “I’d say he’s always on call, but with all the fun and play mixed in,” she says.

She says that this relationship is motivating for her — she knows that every morning she needs to get up and take him out for a walk. “I know he’ll take care of me, and he knows I’ll take care of him,” she says.

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Be thoughtful when you approach

It’s important to respect this relationship between service dogs and their companions when you see them out and about.

While it’s tempting to want to pet one, Flax-Clark reminds us that as far as interacting with a service dog goes, it’s important to remember they are working, even when it doesn’t “look like” they are working.

They might simply be lying on the floor of a cafe next to their human, but they’re most likely helping them in some way, including relieving their anxiety. They need to remain focused to respond to a command. Distracting a working dog by petting it without permission could completely throw them off task.

Because dogs are often tethered to their companions by a leash, if they get up suddenly to greet you, they could veer a wheelchair unknowingly, endangering their companion.

If you want to pet a service dog, a general guideline is to simply ask first. For some Canine Companion clients, like Chet, having people ask to pet his dog Miles occasionally has brought immense relief and joy.

“Instead of asking uncomfortable questions about my disability, they asked, ‘What’s your dog’s name?’ … I suddenly realized that no one was staring at me, they were staring at Miles,” he says.

Team training: Who makes the cut?

Golden or Labrador Retrievers are the main breeds trained as service dogs. They have a natural desire to please and retrieve, which is built into them from years of breeding.

“Those breeds also tend to be very motivated by food, which helps,” Flax-Clark says light-heartedly. The training process begins when they are puppies, in the homes of volunteer “puppy raisers.” Here, they learn basic commands and are socialized in public and private settings.

After about a year and a half, the dogs begin professional training at a regional training center for up to 9 months. There they learn advanced commands.

The final phase in the training is called team training, which is 2 weeks long, and comes after an application process that helps the organization understand what your needs are.

Team training matches you with a few dogs to see which ones you’re compatible with. Then you have a prematch, which includes training with that one dog. There’s a written test and a physical test, and after that you and the dog graduate. Graduation includes meeting the people who raised your dog as a puppy.

After graduation, Flax-Clark says, “You become part of the community. I’m still in touch with Nico’s puppy raiser.” (They met at graduation.) “Graduates stay in touch too,” she adds. “It’s a community like no other. There’s a whole network of people that would help you if you need help at any time.”

The first training center launched in Santa Rosa, California, but there are now seven training centers around the United States. As an ambassador, Flax-Clarke works as a representative in the Los Angeles area, connecting with graduates, going out into the community, and informing people with disabilities about the rights they have.

“These dogs (and their human companions) are vetted,” she emphasizes. The organization makes sure that the dogs and the humans they’re paired with aren’t overly stressed by the work they need to do together.

She refers to the matching and the training as “impeccable,” and emphasizes that Canine Companions is one of the only organizations that offer both the dogs and trainings free of charge.

They even continue to support you with additional training in the future, should you want it. “But not all dogs graduate,” she adds. However, even those who don’t make the cut end up doing good work. Some of them become therapy dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, or even dogs that work with FEMA in search and rescue.

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Part of the family

Once you have your dog, you’re responsible for taking care of it — though in extreme cases (i.e. large, unexpected vet bills, like cancer treatment, for instance), the organization has emergency assistance funds that can be accessed.

Technically, Canine Companions owns your dog until they retire, generally at around 8–10 years old, though this varies depending on the dog.

When they retire, the dogs are offered as pets to their human companion first, but if they don’t stay with their companion, the organization finds them another forever home. Once your dog retires, they guarantee that you get another dog. “It’s not just one and done,” Flax-Clark says.

How to get connected

Because of the thorough training, care, and careful vetting process, there’s a waiting list for a canine companion. You can find out more about how to get on the waiting list at

And though it may vary, Flax-Clark reminds us that the entire process might take a year or two. Her wait for Nico was longer than usual because she applied during the COVID-19 pandemic when the breeding programs were shut down for a while.

But based on Flax-Clark’s experience, and the experiences of other clients, the wait for a canine companion seems well worth it. So why delay? Find out if you’re a candidate and start your process right away. It’s guaranteed to change your life.

Medically reviewed on April 03, 2024

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