Do not pet service dogs? Naperville woman shows kids why
Naperville woman illustrates how service dogs help veterans
The "do not pet" vests service dogs wear when they're assisting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder can give the wrong impression, especially to children, Gail Diedrichsen says.
Kids often think service dogs are mean. Why else wouldn't it be OK to pet them, says Diedrichsen, the Naperville illustrator of a new book that explains the role of service animals to children.
"It's kind of ironic because these dogs are hand-picked because of their good temperament," she said.
Diedrichsen has drawn 32 pages' worth of illustrations for "Ranger, Tales of a PTSD Service Dog," released on Veterans Day. The book is told from the perspective of a service dog placed with a veteran who suffers nightmares and hypervigilance in public as he returns to civilian life after war.
"It's just a wonderful story of a partnership that this man and this dog form," Diedrichsen said.
Proceeds from the book go to Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, a Florida nonprofit that has placed 150 service dogs with veterans and others with disabilities in six years -- although none of them in the suburban area or Illinois, Executive Director Carol Borden said.
The organization commissioned the book from Diedrichsen, a 63-year-old retired art teacher, and volunteer author Laura Cassar of Michigan to explain the vital role service dogs play and some of the ways they help veterans.
"I was really impressed with the difference a dog can make in somebody's life," Cassar said.
Service dogs are trained to recognize night terrors in veterans who might experience flashbacks to traumatic situations, Borden said.
"They know the difference between nightmares and good dreams, and they wake them from nightmares before they even get into the dream stage," Borden said.
PTSD service dogs also can help veterans with anxiety in public places simply by forming a "nonaggressive body block" between the veteran and anyone else who might otherwise get too close.
"The dogs have their back literally by just sitting behind them," Borden said.
Dogs chosen to assist such veterans are usually the most people-oriented and bravest of the bunch.
Diedrichsen shows this in her art with pictures of a young Ranger strutting boldly on a teeter totter and snuggling up to his veteran with a heart-shaped glint in his eye.
Scenes from Ranger's training and placement with his veteran are portrayed in "Ranger" in Diedrichsen's hand-cut artwork that brings together a collage of colored pencil drawings. While the art is vivid and colorful -- "It's really whimsical and really appealing to children," Cassar said -- one element is kept hidden: the veteran's face. Diedrichsen said this is to avoid stereotypes and demonstrate that a veteran with PTSD could be anyone.
Readers see Ranger and his veteran -- always with a red cap covering his facial features -- shopping at the grocery store, a task some struggling with PTSD find daunting, Borden said.
And they see from a dog's-eye view a parade honoring the veteran, who turns right around and gives his medal to Ranger as a thank-you for the dog's assistance.
"They need to be on duty 100 percent of the time for only the person that they are assisting," Diedrichsen said about service dogs. "It's such a tight team."
Borden said service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning they are allowed to be in public places, including businesses and government offices, if they have the skills to help with a person's medical needs.
The ADA defines a service animal as "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability."
Borden said there is not yet a specific certification program that qualifies an animal as a service dog, but about 120 organizations in the country provide sufficient training for dogs to meet standards of the ADA.
Service dogs differ from comfort dogs or therapy dogs in that their job is to assist only one person with medical issues.
The folks behind "Ranger" say the book demonstrates this to children so they can understand why a service dog is not a family pet but a working animal helping someone fully participate in life.
"All dogs give some level of emotional support," Borden said. "The difference is that service dogs are trained with specific skills that actually mitigate the challenges of a disability."
Each copy of "Ranger" sells for $15 at medicalservicedogs.org, and $10 from each book sold makes it back to Guardian Angels.
Borden said 900 copies have been sold, so she recently ordered another 1,000 from the printer.
The success of "Ranger" might spur a series of children's books explaining the other roles service dogs can play for people who are deaf or diabetic or who have seizures or limited mobility. They can retrieve things, give warning of a seizure or low blood-sugar episode, and keep people alert and in touch with their surroundings.
"It's amazing what they can train the dog to do. These dogs are so eager to serve," Cassar said. "I think it's part of their personality."