What if a service dog handler needs emergency help? What will happen to the dog if the owner is incapacitated?
These important questions need to be addressed and planned for. Both the dog and handler need preparation. Walking through the process of dealing with an emergency can help owners prepare for all aspects of these situations. For example, how will the owner call for help? Does the dog need to be trained to bring them a phone? Sometimes an emergency alert system may be a better bet. How will emergency responders know the dog is a service dog? Most owners do not have the dog wear a vest at home, so they may need an alternative. What does the dog need to do when the owner is being cared for by paramedics? Who will care for the dog when the owner is not able to? Friends, neighbors or a pet sitter may be able to help.
An approach I have recommended to some clients is to place a sign on the door of their home that says “Medical assistance dog at work, see refrigerator.” We chose those words specifically because some people may misinterpret the term “service dog” to mean a dog trained to attack or guard. Then on the refrigerator was a list of contact information for alternate caregivers for the dog.
It also helps for owners to consider emergencies that can happen in other contexts. For instance, what if the owner is in a car accident? Or what if the owner has an emergency while out in a store or restaurant? Identification cards or emergency alert companies may provide a way to notify emergency personnel about the dog. Service dogs can carry additional contact information for helpers in their vests or even on a tag.
Additional training for the dog may be helpful too. A visit to the local fire department (ask first!) with the service dog in training can help both to prepare the dog and also to help community first responders become aware of the team. The dog may need training on behaviors like a strong Go to Place or Down-Stay to allow paramedics to help the owner. Consider working on simple behaviors like respecting an open doorway, as paramedics have more important concerns than ensuring that the dog does not slip out!
Of course, ideally all of this preparation is never needed. However, taking some extra steps to plan and train the dog for the various possibilities can ensure that the owner does not end up having to worry about the dog’s welfare in an already difficult situation.