I track down Aaron Backer at a table the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS) has set up at a busy expo at Monona Terrace Convention Center. Heâs not hard to spot. Heâs with his âdemo dog,â Ian, a languid and smiley golden retriever built like a bear. While Ian and a wiggly near-graduate named Wally hold court and pose for selfies, Backer and I talk about the mission of WAGS, a nonprofit that has been training service dogs and placing them with clients with physical disabilities for 31 years.
How would you describe the benefits of a service dog for a person with a disability?
I always tell the story of this 10-year-old girl who got one of our dogs. She was a shy girl and the only girl in her school to use a wheelchair. We donât usually place our dogs with children, because theyâre a big responsibility, but she wanted to do more things for herself because her mom was her caregiver and sometimes would have to leave work to help her go to the bathroom. She couldnât get herself in and out of her chair. She was only going to school half time because she was having problems. Sheâd drop her pencil and the teacher would have to stop class. But the biggest thing was she said nobody ever talked to her. And she thought if she had a dog the kids would talk to her. So we said, âWe gotta get this girl a dog.â She has a great family that helped her with all the commands, and her siblings helped her. School is very stressful for dogs. Itâs loud. Thereâs kids everywhere. But we worked for a long time and she got her dog. So we have this check-in meeting and we say, âAre you doing more things for yourself?â And she said, âOlive picks up my pencil. She helps me go to the bathroom. We go to lunch together.â We asked âWell, are more kids talking to you?â And she said, âIâm the most popular girl in school now.â
What are the main differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs?
When I talk about emotional support dogs, I tell people that generally those are pets. That means they have little or no training and theyâre not allowed in public places. There is confusion that emotional support animals have the same rights as service dogs. Thatâs causing problems all over the place. Sometimes store owners are not sure what to do when someone brings in a dog and they can sense that the dog is not a service animal. They canât say, âYouâre not disabled. Youâre not supposed to be here.â They want to know what to do.
So, you get calls like this a lot? What do you see as the underlying problem?
It makes it harder for people that have legitimate service animals. Theyâll be looked upon with suspicion. For example, someone had an emotional support dog on an airplane, and it bit someone and caused a big scene. That canât look favorable on legitimate service animals.
Is there a certification to show that a dog has been trained?
There is no certification required for a service dog. We mainly train dogs for people in wheelchairs. The dogs are trained for two years and then we train the client on how to utilize the service dog. Each organization has their own standards that they use. Some have excellent standards; some have lower standards.
How are service dogsâ needs for exercise and socialization met?
When we are meeting with a potential client, they have to be able to do that themselves or have a plan around them to be able to do that for the dog. [The dogs] have to have exercise, and they need to go to the vet regularly. They need to eat good food so that they can live until 12 or 13 and serve and help them. If [the clients] canât demonstrate that they can do that, then we wonât give them a dog. We actually retain ownership, by contract, of the dogs after they are placed. So when we do our check-ins, if we find the dog is not being taken care of, or there are issues, we can take the dog back. Now, of course, we work with the person to help them clear up whatâs not going well. We donât want to take the dog back. But we can.
Has that happened very much?
Two times in 30 years. Many of the people that get our dogs have very active lives, so theyâre taking the dogs everywhere they go and right there theyâre getting exercise.Â
What brought you to this work?
An interest in dogs. Iâve always had dogs and loved dogs. Dogs are pretty amazing animals.
What has been the most surprising part of the job?
In the beginning, I was surprised at how quickly dogs bonded to our clients. I saw example after example of a dog meeting a client for the first time and the dog puts its paws on the personâs lap, almost as if they understand right at that moment that this person needs them. I thought it would take longer.
The training sounds rigorous.
Itâs very difficult to train service dogs. Theyâre animals, and youâre putting them into serious situations. Youâre putting them in public, which can be anxiety-producing. You have to socialize them right from the beginning. You have to watch their behaviors all the time and determine whether this animal can become a service dog.
Whatâs the final determination?
Generally, itâs their temperament which decides if they are going to make it, or if they can be a lesser service dog âÂ in someoneâs home and not going out in public. Or not being a service dog at all and just being a pet.