Caring for Patients with Canine Companions - Patient Care - @

Caring for Patients with Canine Companions

EMS providers should have a plan in place for how to handle patients with service dogs



Susan Hillson | | Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You’re dispatched to a call identified as a “pedestrian down.” You arrive on scene and find Maddie, an elderly patient, who has been thrown from her wheelchair and has suffered multiple injuries. Sitting next to her is her service dog, Jake. She’s alone; no one else knows her or knows where she lives. So what’s your next step?

No brainer, you think. You perform your customary head-to-toe inspection, determine her chief complaint and transport her. But you have to think about Jake. Do you leave him sitting on the curb? Do you call animal control? Will your patient refuse to go without him?

Or, you arrive on a scene to find John, a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who’s having a flashback. He’s cowering on the ground with his arms around his service dog, Sam. He has a large gash on his head, which needs to be treated, and his fall may have caused a concussion. He needs to be transported. When you prepare him for transport, he refuses to be separated from Sam, his battle buddy, to the point that he becomes combative. Do you have a plan for how to handle this type of situation?

You’re dispatched to a small house and you find Jennifer, who has just suffered a seizure and needs to be transported. As you talk with her, you find out she has a panic disorder, and her service dog, Lucy, allows her to lead a nearly normal life. No one else is in the house, and she has no relatives who live close by who could take Lucy. Further, she refuses to go without Lucy. Is this something you have a contingency plan to handle?

Creating a Plan
All of the above scenarios are happening across the U.S. on a daily basis. Approximately 10,000 service dogs serve as companion dogs, seizure alert dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility impairment dogs and dogs for PTSD, to name a few. Nearly 70 organizations train service dogs, so these numbers will only increase as people become aware of their value.

These dogs have been granted public access as service dogs by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They can’t be denied access to any place the public is allowed. Depending on the state, these dogs may or may not be required to wear a cape or carry identification, so it would be wise to check your state’s regulations so you know which dogs are legitimate service dogs. For instance, in Colorado, you’re not allowed to ask about the disability that requires a service dog, but you are allowed to ask what three things the dog has been trained to do as a service dog for their partner.

In many cases, the dog is as much a part of the patient’s well being as you are, but in a different way. These patients have become dependent on these dogs to make their lives as normal for them as their particular condition allows, and they can’t handle separation, even for a short time. So you need to make a plan to handle these patients and their dogs before you’re faced with the real thing.

Your first step would be to check with your agency to see if they have a policy on transporting service dogs. If they do, you should make sure everyone’s on the same page and knows how to handle the eventual service dog transport.

Plan in advance where would be the best place for the dog to ride in each rig. Most service dogs are trained to lie in place calmly on command. However, there may be the occasional dog who is agitated. Is there a place you can tie a leash to keep the dog from moving around the ambulance during transport? Should you keep an extra leash? It’s important to plan this out so you’re prepared if you encounter a problem.

If your agency doesn’t have a policy, now is the time to establish one. Take the time to answer concerns some may have over having dogs in the ambulances, such as cleanliness, allergies, etc. If you find you are encountering resistance to transporting these dogs, you should see if you can get someone who uses a service dog to come in for a continuing education course, explaining to your crews how much this dog means to the patient how they’ve become an integral part of their lives.

Your next step is to contact the hospitals in your area. Check to see if they have a plan to handle these service dogs as they arrive with patients. If they do, find out from them if you need to let them know in advance that you’re en route with a service dog on board, so they’re ready when you arrive.

If they don’t have a plan, then you should share your concerns. See if you can collaborate on a plan to handle the dogs when they arrive so things are planned out well in advance, and your patient transfer goes smoothly. A little bit of advance planning can make for a smooth transport for your patient and crew, and an uncomplicated turnover at the hospital.

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Related Topics: Patient Care, Special Patients, Susan Hillson, safety dogs


Susan HillsonSusan Hillson has been an EMS spouse for 40 years. She’s been involved with Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood, Colo., as a past board chairman and current employee. Freedom Service Dogs provides service dogs for those with disabilities including a large number of returning veterans. Contact her via e-mail at


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