pit bull terrier mix puppy waiting for command

When Heather Berg stands at a street corner, waiting for the light to change, she is working very closely with her ever-present canine companion, “Cherish.” Based on what she hears and what Cherish observes, they cross when it is safe to cross.

“Every bit of what we do is teamwork,” she says.

This defines the extraordinary relationship between Heather and her service dog, a relationship made possible by the skills of these animals, who are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with a wide range of disabilities, many of which may not be obvious.

In addition to providing an extra set of eyes for people like Heather, who has been visually impaired since birth, service dogs also do other important work and perform other important tasks. Examples include alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, providing stability for a person with balance impairments, or performing other tasks.  Service animals are working animals, not pets. A dog whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support does not qualify as a service animal. It’s also important to note that services animals in training may be handler trained by the person with disability themselves or accompanied by trainers who do not have any disability at all.

Heather’s personal experience with a disability has fueled both her daily life and her work. For many years, she worked as a physical therapist at the UVM Medical Center. Today she is an employment consultant for the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired for the state of Vermont. The unemployment rate for the blind and visually impaired is high, partly because of logistical issues such as transportation, and partly because of attitudes – the sense that a visually impaired person may not be as productive. In her role, Heather works hard to remove these barriers and clear a path to employment.

Joining her in her workdays – and beyond – is her ever-present service dog , who runs errands with her, goes to her meetings, visits the gym and travels with her – on planes, trains and automobiles. Cherish’s specific tasks are to guide Heather around obstacles, to keep her walking in a straight line, and to notice traffic patterns.

But of course that’s not all. Companionship is a huge component to their relationship. “I never have to wait for the bus alone,” she says. “And she can be a very effective social tool.”

Since the UVM Medical Center understands the important role that service dogs perform for people with disabilities, service dogs are welcomed in all areas of our facilities where the public is normally allowed to go unless patient safety and infection control standards would be compromised by the presence of an animal, such as operating rooms or areas where medical equipment is sterilized or stored. When it is not obvious that an animal is a service animal, staff may ask two questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. It is important not to distract the service dog from working and doing their job.

For more information, visit www.ADA.gov

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