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Service Dogs for Narcolepsy: The Ultimate Guide

Narcolepsy service dogs can change the lives of their people in so many different ways. Along with the benefits a dog along can bring, service dogs can add tasks to mitigate the symptoms those with narcolepsy face.

If you don’t know me, hi! I’m Blythe. I’m a multi-certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, and I have narcolepsy.

I was diagnosed this year after my sleep struggles got worse and worse. Every test came back negative until I saw my psychiatrist - who immediately recognized what was happening and referred me to a sleep specialist. A few months and overnight (and daytime) tests later, and I had my answer… narcolepsy.

 

 

It was so surprising.

I always thought narcolepsy meant falling asleep while driving or mid conversation. I don’t like driving, and I only fall asleep mid conversation in my house cozy on the couch. So I never would have guessed.

Narcolepsy is HARD. It’s hard always being tired and fighting to stay awake or fighting to work through the haze.

The good news is that medication, lifestyle changes, and yes, service dogs, can help immensely.

I’m not a pro at lifestyle changes or even know my way around medications yet, since I’m newly diagnosed, but I do know a LOT about how dogs can help.

So first things first…

What is a service dog?

In the United States, service dogs are dogs trained to mitigate their handlers’ disability. They can be trained by an organization or by the handler. They are not required to hold any “papers” or “certification,” and they aren’t required to pass any sort of test.

This means that any dog, any breed, any size can become a service dog if they are task trained. 

HOWEVER…

Service dogs MUST be under control at all times, not bark (only permissible once for an alert), be fully potty trained, hold no bite history, and not affect the public. They can be asked to leave if they are disruptive in any way.

 

 

Unfortunately, this means that most dogs are unable to be public service dogs. It takes a special kind of personality to handle the public stores, interactions, and sounds without barking, pulling, lunging, or growling.

Service dogs don’t HAVE to work in public, though. There are at-home only service dogs that help their handlers as well. These dogs have less requirements since they can act like any other dog at home.

Do I qualify for a service dog?

Here in the US, anyone with a life limiting disability can receive a service dog. This is determined by the individual and their medical professionals, but is not an official thing. Not everyone with narcolepsy will be considered disabled, but some people with narcolepsy will. 

This disability status is not the same as receiving disability benefits from the government. You can receive a service dog without being legally disabled. 

The definition of disability in the ADA is: “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Major life activities are things like: getting dressed, working, getting groceries, cooking, doing laundry, bathing, going to the doctor, etc.

If those activities are substantially limited for you without a dog, congratulations! You qualify to have a service dog. 

How do you get a service dog?

In the United States, you can get a service dog in one of two ways.

 

  1. Purchasing or receiving a dog from a program. There are numerous places where you can buy a fully trained dog for your needs OR non profit organizations that place dogs for free, like Canine Companions for Independence.

  2. Training your own with the help of a trainer. This is the longer, tougher road, but can be quicker in some cases and a bit cheaper too. This is the route I help people with in my memberships.

 

What can service dogs do for narcolepsy?

 

 

Service dogs can do SO many different things for people with narcolepsy. I will include the list that I am currently working towards as well as some tasks I have helped other people train in the past that might benefit someone like us. 🙂

 

  1. Waking the handler up - making sure they get out of bed on an alarm.
  2. Responding to nightmares (waking handler up, getting medication or water, turning on lights).
  3. Alerting a trusted family member or friend of a sleep attack.
  4. Using scent to alert to stress and other hormones that may make symptoms worse.
  5. Deep pressure therapy to relieve anxiety related to narcolepsy symptoms.
  6. Guiding to an exit, the car, a bench, etc when the handler is foggy.
  7. Retrieving medications, blankets, or dropped items.
  8. Getting help if the handler has fallen.
  9. Providing a “false” alert to remove the handler from a situation.
  10. Guiding to a safe place to lay down.

 

As well as some general tasks that are widely used for a variety of disabilities:

 

  1. Retrieving water, meds, snacks on an alarm.
  2. Responding to alarms.
  3. Responding/alerting to the handlers’ name.
  4. Crowd control to keep the public out of the handler’s personal space.
  5. Blocking or positioning their body behind or in front of the handler to relieve anxiety and stress.
  6. Responding to repetitive or harmful behaviors (like skin picking, scratching, etc).
  7. Retrieving a mobility aid after a fall or sleep attack.

 

All of these tasks can be life changing for someone with narcolepsy - and this list is not all inclusive! If you can come up with a creative solution to something you struggle with, and it helps your symptoms, that is considered a task as well! 

What is the process like of training your own service dog?

Training your own service dog is a long process, but it is also incredibly rewarding! The first thing you need is to start with research.

 

 

Research the dog breeds that make good service dogs (labradors, golden retrievers, standard poodles, and collies generally) and consider the needs you have for a dog. Do you have allergies to dog hair? Do you prefer a goofy personality or a serious one? Do you have a size need for your dog?

And also ask yourself… do you like dogs? And I mean do you REALLY like dogs?

I know that’s a weird question to ask, but I have so many clients come to me to train a service dog only to find out that they don’t actually like dogs that much - they were just recommended a service dog by a practitioner or friend.

Service dogs have the same needs as any other dog - exercise, grooming, vet care, training. They also still slobber, enjoy playing, have to be potty trained, and everything else that comes with dog guardianship.

Once you’ve decided that you for sure want to pursue this, the next step is to find a breeder to work with or a dog from a rescue. Both of these options are tough and carry some risk. The best thing you can do to help yourself is hire a professional to help you select the dog. (I do this for clients all the time and am happy to help - just email [email protected] )

Then - wait for your pup to be born! 

 

 

The general training timeline is at least two years. Most dogs take longer than two years when trained by their handlers. This training includes basic life training like vet skills, grooming, potty training, and house manners. This is also the phase where the dog learns how to be confident, calm, and relaxed in all environments!

Then the training progresses to manners in public areas where all dogs are allowed, and finally manners in non-pet friendly areas. This is the time period that takes the longest.

Tasks can be trained at any point, but I personally wait to start training tasks until my dog is solid on the home manners. It can be overwhelming to have so much to work on! 

This whole training process is what my career is centered on. I have classes for all of it, and the support in my memberships to work on this on your own, so be sure to join the pack if you need some help from me! 

A word of caution

In the US, dog training is not regulated. There is no requirement to call yourself a dog trainer OR a service dog trainer. You will see dogs with prong collars, ecollars, head halters, and all sorts of fancy tools. Those tools should not be used to train a service dog. And especially not placed on all dogs in the program. If you see a trainer recommending those tools to every client, you should stay far far away. 

Service dogs need to be independent, confident, and excited to work. These tools eliminate all of these things, and can provide the illusion that the dog is calm. Don’t fall for it - I promise it is not worth your relationship with your pup.

 

 

Service dogs for narcolepsy can be truly incredible and so helpful to their handlers.

If you are considering a service dog for your narcolepsy or for your kiddo with narcolepsy and have questions, feel free to email me or send me a message on instagram or facebook! This is one of my all time favorite topics to chat about, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

Good luck on your journey - I’ll be cheering you on! 

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