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  • Writer's pictureEphemeral & Faithful

Having A Service Dog for Cystic Fibrosis

So many fellow CF patients have reached out to me the past few months asking about Skipper, my service dog, starting points with getting a service dog, what a service dog can do to help a CF patient, and many other questions. This post addresses the most commonly asked questions I get, and I eagerly welcome any additional comments or questions you may have! I hope this is enlightening and educational to both people who are seeking a CF service dog or others who may just be curious about life with a service dog for CF.

P.S. Follow Skipper on Facebook: Skipper The Cystic Fibrosis Service Dog or Instagram: @skipper_cfservicedog


  • How do I get a dog to be a CF service dog?

Most service dog programs unfortunately will not accept a CF patient unless they have issues like mobility challenges, psychological challenges, diabetes, or one of the other “common criteria” that programs use to determine if that person needs a service dog. I fit the mobility criteria due to my CF-related arthritis, but was removed from the program I was accepted into as they had far too many people on the list and were taking people off sadly. So I went the route of obtaining a puppy from a breeder and worked with the breeder to get a dog that had the temperament and ability to help with what I needed. I highly recommend Carolina Goldens with breeder, Danielle Scruggs, which is based out of Rutherfordton, NC. They can send dogs all over the U.S. and breed their Goldens to have amazing temperaments, health clearance, and focus solely on service and therapy dogs.


  • What kind of breed is best to get?

Temperament, trainability, size, task needs are all things to consider. The breed should never be aggressive or stubborn. Golden retrievers, labs, doodles, German shepherds, Pomeranians, and collies are all popular choices for their temperament and high intelligence. My personal favorite is a golden retriever. They are gentle, quick learners, alert, easily trained, snuggly, great size for carrying items and doing deep pressure therapy. They're also VERY affectionate and cuddly.


  • What gender should I get?

This is purely your preference. From my point of view, males can be easier to train, are more mellow and sometimes more affectionate, goofy, and don't go into heat (no doggy diapers for me!). On the other hand, males can also be more dominate, territorial, stubborn, and independent. Females can be more high strung, go into heat, but also mature faster than males. Males are bigger and females are smaller, if size matters to you and if your dog is doing mobility work, you will need a bigger dog. Overall, there's really no right or wrong answer here. My personal preference is male, but females are great too.


  • Where do I start with training?

I have done what is called "owner-training" with Skipper. I could not afford to go through an official service dog program and do not drive, so Petsmart classes were not an option. I read numerous books, watched YouTube videos, asked other service dog owners (Facebook group and Instagram are a wealth of knowledge), and learned by trial and error. I have experience in training a variety of breeds (Belgian Malinois, black lab, French bulldog, cocker spaniel, and a few mutts) as "house pets" as well, so this experience carried over to help me train Skipper in basic obedience and manners. For those of you who do not wish to owner train, I would highly recommend starting with a basic obedience and manners class from Petsmart or Petco and continue taking as many of those as possible, as soon as possible. Keep in mind that these classes are nowhere near sufficient for training for a service dog. They will help build the necessary base for your dog, socialize him to other dogs, give you a chance to be supervised as you work with him, and the instructor can help guide you in troubleshooting issues, but they cannot be your sole source of training. You must continue working with a professional trainer who specializes in training service dogs to achieve public access work, service task work, and polish manners and obedience. Another option is to simply get a service dog trainer from day one and work one-on-one with this trainer in basic obedience, manners, tasks, what you need. The purpose of a service dog specific trainer is to instill the work and training needed for very specific tasks like diabetic alert, picking up things, mobility, and more, polish obedience and manners, and ensure your dog is "public ready."


  • What can a service dog do to help with CF?

Skipper helps me with pain management by using DPT (deep pressure therapy), where he lays on parts of my body that are hurting such as my stomach and joints, carries my IV medication supplies in a doggy saddlebags that attach to his vest when I am doing IV meds for a lung infection, helps me with mobility by supporting me if I am off balance, if I need help getting off the floor, can carry many of my belongings in his saddlebags if I am having bad back pain, and can provide forward momentum for me when I am dealing with a low energy day. He also provides emotional support for me when I am in the hospital and at doctor's appointments, but this is not considered to be a service task. Each person really varies so much with what their dog can for them and the possibilities are endless! Ask your doctor about how a service dog can help you, and feel free to message me if you are seeking specific ways a service dog can help you.


  • How do you get a service dog certified?

Ahhh the most asked question I get! Let me be clear off the bat: service dogs can NOT legally be certified, and "certification" does not grant them access. There is no paperwork that grants a service dog access, not even a doctor's letter. A service dog must abide by all public access guidelines, be fully trained in obedience and manners, and perform at least one service task. Referencing the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) on this one: "Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry. There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal." These organizations that claim to certify your dog are scams and cause further issues for legitimate service dog teams, so please for the love of humanity, do not go and register your dog to be a service dog!


  • What is the difference between a service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog?

There are many differences and public access rights vary per type of dog. This image best separate and explains the differences between these dogs:

  • How can I train my own dog I already have to be a service dog?

This one is tricky. Dogs older than a 6 months are difficult to train as a service dog, because a service dog needs extensive socialization, vigorous obedience training, impeccable manners, flawless public access skills, and ability to do service tasks. It can be done, but ideally the dog should be started with vigorous training as early as 8 weeks and continued until the age of 2 years old. Even then, training needs to be polished and shaped as needed. The saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" may have some validity to it. Although it can be done, many speed bumps will be encountered, behaviors need to be drastically shaped, and training must be a rigorous, daily process. I trained Skipper 3-5 times a day for 15-20 minutes per session for about a year and half, and he still has a few areas needing improvement. If you are going to try to train your own dog, I would recommend having a behaviorist evaluate it to see if it has appropriate temperament and any hesitations such as fear or aggression factors, and begin work immediately with a professional trainer. But be forewarned, that there is a higher risk of the dog "washing" (the term used when a dog is deemed inadequate for service work due to a variety of factors) as a service dog. Nevertheless, don't be deterred from at least trying!


  • How soon can I take my service dog in public with me?

Many states permit service dogs in training (SDiT) in public, which helps tremendously with training and socializing! Check on your state's laws regarding this, and take your dog in public as soon as possible. Get the first set of shots, avoid other dogs, pet stores, and dog parks until shots are complete, but take him shopping, for walks, to friend's houses, in car rides, to sporting events, doctor's offices, etc. Keep in mind you must mark that your dog is an SDiT, and this can be done with a vest, collar, leash, bandana, or leash wrap. Try to make sure your dog never is vocal in public, never has an accident in public (take him potty every time before you enter a store until he is potty trained), don't let you dog touch items that do not belong to him, and always make sure people ask before petting him. Some of Skipper's first outings when he was less than 2 months old included Target, Walmart, a seafood restaurant, college baseball game, and doctor's appointment.


  • What is socialization?

My favorite part about dog training...and in my opinion, the most important! Put simply, socialization is the positive exposure to as many sights, sounds, smells, people, animals, places, things, and other environments as possible before the window of socialization closes at 3 months old. This should be a daily thing you do with you pup, and sets the ground work before instilling obedience and manners. A service dog needs to be able to obey and have manners under any condition and in any environment. So take him EVERYWHERE and expose him in a fun and positive way, never forcefully, but with encouragement, praise, and treats to EVERYTHING as much as possible before he turns 3 months old. The best window for socialization is before 3 months, and though it can be done after 3 months, it can be much harder if they go through fear periods around 5 months and sometimes several times after, and hit the "teenage years" around 8 months. Google a list of "dog socialization" and you will find there are some great ideas and checklists for socializing your pup!


  • Does Skipper go to the hospital with you?

Yes, he does! Every hospitalization and doctor's appointment. He knows how to tuck under a chair during appointments, does not approach doctors or nurses and is not bothering by them coming in my room, sleeps on a bed in my hospital room (or my bed), and handles they hospitals sounds, sights, and smells with excellence. I always bring his toys, food, bowls, a bed, poo bags, and a leash. I put him on the leash at night time so he doesn't slip out if nurses come in, but otherwise he is left off leash in my hospital room and knows to go his bed if staff members come in. If I get too sick to care for him, I send him home with my family, and they are so kind to care for him until I am able to. Otherwise, he is a great help, comfort, and companion to me!


  • Who takes Skipper to potty when you're in the hospital?

By law, if I take Skipper to the hospital with me, I am required to be able to care for him and the hospital has to make appropriate accommodations, which includes allowing me off the CF unit to take him potty. If I am too sick to care for him or have procedures or surgery that require anesthesia, then I send him home with my family to be cared for. I have trained Skipper to potty on command on a variety of surfaces in different kinds of weather, so he can go on a bush, a tree, wood chips, grass patch, flowers, rocks, and even asphalt or concrete if there is no other surface for him to go on. He does an excellent job walking next to an IV pole or wheelchair too. Sometimes, friends who come to visit are kind enough to take him potty too, which is a great help.


  • How do you travel on a plane with Skipper?

Skipper travels very well! I've worked with him since he was 9 weeks old and made sure to socialize him to suitcases, the possibility of strangers giving him a putdown, being off-leash in the security area, staying confined to the area at my feet on the plane, and more. His first plane trip was at 5 months old, and he did great! He has traveled at least 4 other times since then. Here are my best travel tips:

  1. Socialize your dog to the following before traveling: crowds, moving suitcases, loud noises, strangers touching him, kids talking to him, elevators, pottying on turf, walking across gaps (think about the little gap between the airplane and gate walkway...so many dogs balk at this and won't even board a plane), and standing in tight lines.

  2. Ensure your dog knows the following commands solidly on and off leash: sit, stay, down, place, no, heel, leave it, come, potty, and settle.

  3. Make sure your dog's vaccinations are up to date, check with the location you are traveling to about required vaccines, and carry these vet papers with you.

  4. Pack your dog's own bag: food, bowls, toys, medication, toys, blanket, cleanup supplies in case of an accident, service dog vest, water bottle, snacks, and grooming tools. I carry this bag on as it can be considered medical equipment since it is for a service dog, and it makes for great easy access to food and water during layovers, and cleanup supplies in case of an accident or throw up (yep, it's happened before).

  5. Don't feed or water your dog at least 2 hours before your flight. They will be fine. You don't want an accident on the plane or in the airport! You can pack little high calorie snacks for him and give ice cubes on the flight. The app called "Where To Go" is a great app that shows the location of every service dog relief area in airports across the USA.

  6. Notify the airline you are traveling with a service dog and request pre-boarding so you can sit in the bulkhead seating if possible.

  7. Ensuring your dog is comfortable and relaxed is key. A towel or toy on the floor may help calm your dog during the flight. Have your dog lay down or sit between your legs during take off and landing, and feed treats during both of these to ease pressure in their ears. Be confident and calm, your dog can pick up on your own emotions incredibly well.

  8. Be courteous, respectful, and professional with how you handle your service dog. Don't show off, don't let people touch, and be on your best behavior. This will go a long way with security officers, airline staff, and fellow travelers who may be nervous around a dog.

  9. Make yourself aware of your rights with a service dog according the the Air Carrier Access Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. You may need to educate folks who are ignorant of these rules and may try to push you around.

Skipper Waits to Board During A Layover

  • How do you mange care and training for Skipper while also balancing CF care, work, and life?

It’s been a learning process to find the right balance of time management with Skipper's training, daily care, my own CF management, work, and life itself. Caring for a dog isn’t really a lot of work, it’s the training that is so time consuming, especially in the first 1-2 years. When I was vigorously training Skipper daily, I would use my free time when I would normally watch movie or even hang with friends to instead train Skipper. And it has paid off! He excelled in his learning and does great in public access and obedience (most of the time). I work part-time for my church, and thankfully they are amazing with accommodating my CF and are so kind to permit Skipper at the workplace (churches are exempt from the ADA requirement to allow service dogs, so permission has to be granted for service dogs to be on church property).

Skipper Doing "Under" At Work

  • I have anxiety. How can I get a service dog?

I will let the ADA answer this one: "The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA." (Reference: https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html)


  • I want to take my dog everywhere too! How can I do that?

Well for starters, you have to have a disability, and the service dog must be able to mitigate the disability and help you. So if you don't have a disability, then you cannot just slap a vest from Amazon on your dog and call it a service dog. This causes SO many issues for legitimate service dog teams. A disability comes with a barrage of issues, and the dog is meant to help with these problems. Trust me, your fuzzy pet will be just fine left at home or left with a loved one. He is not going to go crazy if you go to the store without him, and if he is, then you may need a trainer's help to control his behavior. If you are going to go crazy without him or her, then you may have a serious case of separation anxiety and codependency and need some help too.

I hope this information helps! Getting a service is a big decision and requires a great time and financial commitment, but it is worth it. Feel free to shoot me a message if you have any questions!

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Amanda Phariss
Amanda Phariss
May 29

have cystic fibrosis also and I am training my service dog my self but I was put off around 6 months of age due to 2 major surgery's that almost ended my life. so we are behind a whole 5 months he is a yr old. I have 32% of my lungs left and the new meds are helping but not enough. I have a lot of other cf issues still and this has helped a lot. it gives me hope after my last service dog passed away at 11 yrs old I did not understand at the time how much she had helped me now I need to do it again. I am so worried about him being …

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Linda Walker
Apr 07, 2020

Very interesting AND informative, Abi! I LOVE the pictures of Skipper when he was a pup! And now too!

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