Understanding Disabilities: When Fido is not just a friend, but a lifesaver

At the age of 28 and in the midst of a thriving fine art and design career, Nat Dean sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident.

Dean, a resident of Santa Fe for the past 22 years, said she has owned four career service dogs. Her current dog is Tommy, who was trained and placed with her by Assistance Dogs of the West.

Her dogs have reminded her of medication times, have helped create a daily structure, helped to balance her gait, improved her physical navigation skills and and alerted her to things like a drawer that was left open, she said. “They provide me a centering force when things may become challenging, and act as a bridge to the public at times when I might become confused or lost,” Dean said.

Service animals — dogs and miniature horses — are allowed in most public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act and New Mexico’s Service Animal Act. The animals are trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate the needs of a person with a disability. For instance, a service animal may alert someone with diabetes that their blood sugar is low, prevent a child on the autism spectrum from wandering away or guide a person with visual impairment through a busy intersection.

Under federal and state laws, you can ask whether the dog is a service animal and what tasks the dog performs, but you cannot ask the person to demonstrate the tasks.

Documentation is not required as a condition for entry into establishments where service dogs are allowed, but the animal must be under the continuous control of the owner — also called a “handler.”

While recovering from her head injury, Dean said, it was difficult it was for her to get adequate health care and other services. Eventually, she became an advocate for people with disabilities. She worked on public policy at the local, state and federal levels. Much of her work has been focused on improving service animal law.

“As a person who was always a ‘go-getter,’ I decided I’d try to do everything I could to make others’ journey through disability easier in the hopes that nobody else would have to suffer through what I did,” Dean said. “I thought others experiencing disabilities may benefit from my experience, with transitioning back to living as full of a life as possible.”

The first service dog she received, almost 29 years ago, was her first canine companion, she said.

“There was quite a learning curve, not only about the rights and responsibilities of being a handler — not to mention learning the up to 90-plus commands that a highly trained service animal is expected to know — but also about what makes a dog tick and what that relationship was going to look like,” Dean said.

But she can’t say enough about the benefits of having a service dog.

“When you are tasked with taking care of someone else’s well-being,” she said, “you will tend to take better care of yourself, and that alone is of great value in anyone’s life.”

But there was one downside for Dean: “I had to learn that when you’re walking around with a dog on the end of your arm, everywhere you go, you can be on the receiving end of a lot of unwanted attention from the public at large, and one has to learn how to be gracious about it and often be an ambassador for what service dogs are and what they do.”

Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center, 800-949-4232. He can be reached at a@winnegar.com.

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