Wolf was fully trained, and a trainer from New Life Mobility Assistance Dogs showed Jaci how Wolf could help her maintain her balance and handle tasks.

“If we were in the grocery store, Wolf would help by pulling items off of the lower shelves,” Jaci says. “He could also help pull the grocery cart and, if I were to fall, he could help me safely get back in a standing position.”

With an assistance dog, Jaci felt more independent – and empowered, she says. In fact, in 1999, Jaci, who has been in and out of wheelchairs since she was 15, entered the Ms. Wheelchair Washington pageant and took the title. “Having an assistance dog has given me the confidence to venture out into the world,” she says.

Today, Jaci is married and has two young sons. She also has Jasmine, her third German shepherd assistance dog. (Jetta followed Wolf, who died in 1998.) Jasmine can get Jaci’s shoes, open and shut doors, find the television remote and more.

“Not only has she given me my life back, but she’s also become a valued member of our family,” Jaci says.

Nancy Gordon & Her “Hot Dogs”

A car crash on a rainy Oregon highway in 1992 forever changed Nancy Gordon’s life, leaving her in chronic pain. She continued working as a licensed clinical social worker until 1998, and then closed her practice, unable to work due to debilitating pain from fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.

“There were days when even getting out of bed was an exhausting experience,” Nancy says. “Pain medications only offered limited relief.”

In 1999, a friend piqued Nancy’s interest in a breed of hairless and shorthaired Mexican dog called a Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, known for its body warmth. Although their body temperature is not higher than that of other dogs, their sparse fur makes Xolos feel like heating pads, radiating a cozy 102 degrees. Some people, especially those with musculoskeletal issues, are drawn to the breed for that reason. Nancy decided to get one.

She found a breeder, fell in love with a small brown, black and white puppy with a short coat, and named her Toaster. The little dog seemed eager to learn commands, so Nancy and Toaster enrolled in a two-year program in Southern California that trains assistance dogs.

By the end of the program, Toaster could respond to myriad commands, fetching credit cards, phones, mail and other items, and even helping Nancy put on her shoes or take off her sweater.

Nancy agreed to breed Toaster, and in 2002, Toaster had a litter. Nancy kept the runt, a puppy named Pink who has three legs due to knee-surgery complications. Pink was also trained as a service dog and, like Toaster, is a natural heating pad. 

“I have arthritis pain in my back and hips, and Pink likes to spoon with me at night,” Nancy says. “She knows instinctually when I’m in pain.”

Nancy, 58, now works to place Xolos with others who have joint and muscle pain through her nonprofit organization, Xolos for Chronic Pain Relief (X-CPR, pawsforcomfort.com), which she founded in 2008. To date, she has placed 16 dogs in homes, and helps owners through the first year with positive-reinforcement training through regular Skype sessions.

“It’s so rewarding to place a Xolo,” Nancy says. “I’ve seen people who have been bedridden and in pain who go on, with their dogs’ help, to feel better and live active lives.”

What Makes a Service Animal?

According to a 2011 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “service animal” is a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform at least three tasks that mitigate a person’s disability. The act also allows trained miniature horses as alternatives to dogs in some cases.

Although there is no officially recognized way to register a service animal, you can take steps to make sure it qualifies under the ADA. This begins by ensuring your dog receives proper training (training programs range from four to 18 months) to help with mobility issues and the tasks of daily living and to exhibit proper manners in public places.

Animals are not required to wear special collars, vests or harnesses, but having these items gives your service animal credibility and lets people know it is a working animal and not a pet.

For a list of resources on service dogs, plus answers to frequently asked questions about these animals, visit servicedogcentral.org.