Most people think of one person when they think of assistance dogs: the person who uses their services. But there is actually a team of people behind each service dog, from breeders to trainers to veterinarians. I spoke with one service dog veterinarian in Chicago, Dr. Tracy Hlede of Oz Animal Hospital, who owns this pet clinic and works with service dogs as well as therapy animals to make sure they are in tip-top shape to work with people who need them.
1.) What are some federal requirements for service dogs?
All service dogs must be up-to-date on their vaccinations and go through an annual fecal screening. With service dogs and animal-assisted therapy dogs, you are sometimes working with people whose immune systems are compromised, so it is of utmost importance that these animals are healthy. State requirements may vary, but the federal requirements are the vaccinations and the fecal screening.
2.) What measures are taken to protect these animals from getting sick? Or that people don’t get sick from the animals?
The aforementioned vaccinations and screenings are the measures, but if the animals are working a lot, the annual exams happen every six months instead. The fecal screening is especially important because dogs and other animals carry parasites in their feces that can make people very sick. There are also monthly heart-worm pills and other general preventative measures. It is in the best interest of public health to keep these animals healthy, especially if they work in hospital wards. It was recently discovered that dogs can be carriers of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is deadly to humans and dogs alike, so we don’t allow people with contagious diseases to touch the dogs or kiss them. But with diligent testing, we can usually notice if something’s awry, and we practice general sanitation techniques such as washing one’s hands after they pet the dog.
3.) Have you noticed a change in a dog’s behavior from before it was a service dog to after?
I would say that’s hard to tell because I am not a trainer who sees the dogs right at the beginning of their training when they are puppies. The dogs in general are very content, well-adjusted, and patient in nature. Regular pet-dog patients are usually more stressed in my office.
4.) What inspired you to help animals initially?
I have always loved animals. I was an only child and I was very shy, not very outgoing with other people, but I would see animals on the street and approach them. I got my first cat at 10 years old when I was going through a lot of life adjustments and changes. She became my best friend and inspired me to be more empathetic and caring.
5.) Any advice for future veterinarians?
It’s not just about having that love and passion for animals, it’s about knowing the science and medicine to help them. I stuck with science and math and I worked hard to get into vet school. There are not as many vet schools as there are human medical schools, so they’re very picky. So I would say study and get good grades in math and science!
Thank you, Dr. Hlede, for taking the time to talk with 1FUR1 and thank you for all the work you do with service and animal assisted therapy dogs!