In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

October 7, 2021

Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences: On service animals helping with hidden disabilities

By In the Loop

Mayo Clinic is a unique place: the culture, the values, the people. "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences" explores the experiences of Mayo Clinic staff as they navigate life personally and professionally. Sharing these experiences increases understanding of others, and ultimately contributes to finding connections, belonging and inclusion at work.

In this episode of "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences," you'll hear from Cynthia Mathews, a lead application analyst in Information Technology, and Sharyn French, a clinical research assistant, as they share how their service dogs — Claire, a blue standard poodle, and Milo, a black lab — have helped them cope with their hidden disabilities.

Listen as they share their experiences with service animals:


Read the transcript, edited for length and clarity:

MATHEWS: Not every dog can be a service dog, and not every service dog is for every person.

NARRATOR: In this episode, you'll hear from Cynthia, a lead application analyst in Information Technology, and Sharyn, a clinical research assistant, as they share their experiences with having service dogs.

MATHEWS: How did you get started with your service dog?

FRENCH: It actually started with me breaking up with my boyfriend, which sounds bad. But it's really good because I got Milo. With my diabetes ― even having 60 years of experience with it ― I knew I needed some help. And my sisters told me about service dogs. I applied, and I eventually got Milo.

How about you, Cynthia?

MATHEWS: I had a little different path to getting a service dog. My sister has a disability, and we had planned to get her a service dog and chose the route of training our own.

I helped with the training, starting about five years ago. Then about three years ago, I started as a volunteer with the organization helping with the training of service dogs in some of the classes.

When somebody falls behind in a class, you always have somebody else who can come alongside and keep the others up or help give pointers. So that became my role — helping out in the classes and supporting others with the training.

Two years ago, I was introduced to Claire. It was love at first sight. We started training together, and she's helping me with an invisible disability. She's been fantastic. Tell us about your experience with your service dog.

FRENCH: I could start with Milo's history. I got him from an organization in the Twin Cities. They provided a two-week training program.

So I got a motel, went up to the Twin Cities and spent two weeks learning about caring for him and all his 200 commands. We went to the Mall of America. We went off to restaurants and movies, and went on the shuttle. So it was a very busy two weeks.

But Milo was trained at a prison.

MATHEWS: Claire was donated to the service dog trainer that I work with because she had been returned to the breeder. The breeder didn't want to place her and had heard about us and volunteered to give us Claire.

She had some issues we worked through with the training. We really meshed well. We had personalities that worked well together.

We've been training Claire for several years, and I do have a professional trainer assisting with that. So it's not just me choosing to do that training, but it's also working with a group, and learning activities and how to teach those 200 commands.

It's been quite the journey, but the fun thing with that is it built the relationship even stronger. She's only about 3½ years old, but she is able to do the steps I need and help me out. It's been a great experience.

My major task she does is to counterbalance. So if I get unsteady, she is supporting me so that I'm able to walk more easily. A cane is great, but as soon as you start to tilt, the cane will go with you instead of against you. Whereas a dog naturally leans the other way, and that counterbalance effort has been tremendous.

With this training group, I get to see different disabilities like diabetes, psychiatric disorders, PTSD, hearing assistance, mobility assistance. It's been fun to learn what they can do.

How has your service dog affected your work life?

FRENCH: I'm really an introvert, but Milo helps me be an extrovert, especially when we were working on campus. His skill as a service dog comes through his nose. That's why labs are great as diabetic assist dogs.

I can let people pet Milo. Always ask, but Milo's not going to lose his concentration and his job while he's being petted.

It's so fun walking to the clinic and seeing kids run across the street to see him. It's really fun to talk about him and diabetes, and educate people. He's changed my life immensely.

MATHEWS: Because my disability is not visible, I wasn't sure I wanted to have a dog at work to make that limitation visible to everybody. Then when I was in the process of training Claire, I ran into an experience where I was walking to my car, and I got halfway there. It was late in the day. There were no cars in the parking lot, and I had an episode of dizziness hit me.

I was not sure how to make it to my car without falling. There was nothing to grab. I just stopped dead for about five to 10 minutes in the middle of a parking lot trying to figure out how to make it the last block and a half to my car.

At that point, it hit me that if I'd had Claire, I would have been fine because she would have balanced me. It was the tipping point for me in bringing her along with me, and she's given me confidence.

I'm an introvert too, so it's making me have those conversations because everybody wants to talk about a dog. With these episodes, she gives me confidence again. I'm comfortable taking longer walks where there might not be something to grab, and I'm comfortable going upstairs and all those kinds of things. It's been wonderful to have her help bring me around.

What should people without service dogs know when they're around service dogs and their owners from your perspective?

FRENCH: Ask before you touch them. Some people's dogs, like Milo, they're fine with it. Other Seeing Eye dogs need to concentrate on what they're doing. You can't be distracting them. And I try to keep Milo away from other service dogs because I don't want to distract those dogs from doing their job.

MATHEWS: For me, the biggest thing has been, as you said, to ask the owner first before you do anything. But I had an awesome experience recently where I was in a medical procedure and someone said: "OK, you have a dog. What should I be watching for from the dog?" Not just what should you do with the dog, but what should I be looking for.

That was amazing. I was able to say: "She doesn't alert. She helps with this, and I'll tell you if I need anything, but thank you for asking."

The two other things I think about are to recognize there are disabilities that you don't see and may not be comfortable talking about. The dog can be making a tremendous difference, but you might not see the task. Those aren't always visible to someone who's not trained to work with a service dog.

The last thing I wanted to share is it's not "poor Claire." She's working all day with me. She loves resting at my feet, and she knows that she's with me all day. When she gets to help me with the task, she gets really excited. And then when we're at home, and I don't necessarily have her in a vest, she is spoiled rotten. So they love every aspect of this. So it's not a poor puppy to be thinking of. It's a wonderful thing that they can do and be our partners.

FRENCH: Milo's vest said he's a diabetic assist dog, so it's right out there in the open.

MATHEWS: What recommendations would you have for someone who's curious about getting a service animal?

FRENCH: Remember that it's 24/7. That dog is with you all the time, and you're basically one-handed.

MATHEWS: Yes, absolutely.

FRENCH: But they're great. People love dogs, so you've got to be ready to interact with people a lot.

MATHEWS: For me, I think about the disability and the task you'd want from that dog, and whether you're able to care for a dog, because they're still dogs. They still require emotional care; physical care; and the finances of handling, grooming and vet bills.

When you look at getting them, be careful who you work with because there're two reputable types. There are the ones that teach how to train, like my group is doing. And they have one set of fees. And there are the ones that say, "Here's a dog, and I will place it with you" ― like you chose.

You have that training period, but I've heard several people say" "I took my dog to training, and they trained him for three weeks. He's all trained, and he's a service dog." Service dogs take 600 hours. They learn one to 200 commands. The service dog is different than a really well-trained dog.

FRENCH: I think you're right. Check it out before you get it. Once you have your service dog, remember the two questions people can legally ask: "Does that dog provide a service for you" and "What service is that?" That's all they can ask.

MATHEWS: I was so pleased to see the Mayo policy that was fully in compliance with those questions and that guided people in the right way. They're not required to have papers that say they're a service dog. They're not even required to wear a vest.

Those are options that many of us use because it makes it so visible and so distinctive, but that's not a requirement. Claire wears a harness that has a big handle on it so she can help me out.

FRENCH: I've been thanked at different businesses: "Thank you for wearing a vest so other customers know."

MATHEWS: My trainer and I talk about how we want to show what a service dog should do. There are lots of fake service dogs out there because their owners want to take their dog with them.

I respect the relationship with the dogs, but it can put a real service dog at risk. If your dog doesn't have the training and doesn't respect my dog, a bite or an attack could throw me off balance. I could fall. It could make yours not respond to diabetes. It also can mean that one of our dogs cannot do their job appropriately later because they're scared. So it's really important to keep that safe environment.

When we're out and about, my family is used to waiting on whoever has a service dog. We'll walk into a store or restaurant, and somebody will say tell me more about this. There are the occasional ones where they're not supportive of a dog, and you have to explain your rights. You have to explain your ability to access the area with the dog, but there are so many opportunities to share the amazing things that dogs do now.

NARRATOR: Reflect on their conversation. What is your experience with people having service animals? Consider sharing with a colleague or comment below.

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Tags: Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, Staff Stories, Working at Mayo Clinic

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