top of page

“I Don’t Want to Have a Service Dog, I Need to have a Service Dog”

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

Maria Oliveira’s Journey for Acceptance & Advocacy

By: Katie Carr

Young Brazilian woman, Maria, sits on a bench in the woods with her white standard poodle service dog, Clary.

Most people have a close relationship with their dogs, but for Social Worker and Disability Advocate Maria Oliveira her cream standard poodle, Clary, is so much more than her friend. Clary is her lifeline. For the last two years Maria has trained Clary to be her medical alert and response service dog. The two of them are nearly inseparable. Even when she isn't on a leash Clary wants to be by her handler's side, monitoring her with just her sense of smell. She can alert to blood pressure drops and cardiac episodes two to five minutes before they happen, giving Maria time to get in a safe position and have Clary respond accordingly. Even when Clary was young, she knew that something wasn't quite right with her owner's health. “At about four or five months old she started doing these really weird behaviors towards me,” Maria said. "I got confused about why she was getting so fixated on me. It's like she was trying to tell me something." After a while she realized a pattern. Nearly every time Clary would stop, stand, and just stare at her, Maria would have a correlating medical episode.

Entering the Service Dog

“Before I even started university, I already had the idea in the back of my mind that I was going to need a service animal later on in my life. At the time, I thought it was mostly going to be for psychiatric purposes before I realized what was actually going on with my body was a lot more physical.” So when Maria started college at the University of Central Florida and saw an organization about service dogs during orientation week, she immediately knew that she wanted to get involved. The club on campus allowed volunteers to raise and train future service dogs to get placed with people with disabilities free of charge through Canine Companions.

Maria quickly became enthralled with their mission; participating in fundraisers, going to events, and eventually signing up to become a puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are responsible for socializing future service dogs, teaching them commands, and returning the pups to professional training after about a year and a half. This is just one of many college puppy raising clubs and “there are currently over 18 colleges and universities involved in the Canine Companions collegiate puppy raising program. Volunteer puppy raisers gain valuable skills including puppy handling, canine care, early socialization and much more” (Canine Companions). Many other service dog organizations utilize volunteer puppy raisers and have clubs on college campuses.

In August of 2018 Maria picked up a yellow labrador retriever puppy, Vivvy, to raise through Canine Companions. In June of 2021, Vivvy graduated as a Hearing service dog through Canine Companions. She alerts her handler to “key sounds by making physical contact such as nudging the leg or arm. Among the many sounds hearing dogs are trained to recognize and respond to are the sound of a doorbell, alarm clock, someone calling a name or a smoke alarm” (Canine Companions).

Training Her Own Service Dog

While raising Vivvy during August of 2019 Maria noticed that her health was declining. “I

already had many close calls that almost led me to having to drop out of school because my health wasn't doing too well. Medications were not doing anything, and I was putting myself in dangerous positions, and there was just nothing I could really do. I felt powerless in that way.” She decided to revisit the idea from highschool of getting a service dog. Initially she looked into getting a service dog from a nonprofit organization like Canine Companions. “I researched and I researched and I couldn't find something that was a fit for me’ so that's when I was like, ‘You know what? I think owner training is going to be the best option for me.’”

Owner training is an option where someone with a disability can train their own service dog. This offers the opportunity for people who want their dog to perform niche tasks or have uncommon conditions to have a dog specially trained for them. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act “People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”

Young Brazilian woman, Maria, kneels next to a large potted plant with her white standard poodle service dog, Clary.

The process of getting her own service dog started while Maria was still raising Vivvy. She met Clary when she was three weeks old at a Standard Poodle breeder. “Honestly, the reason I chose her was because she was the only one that seemed to like me. One peed on me, one didn’t care, and one was just sleeping. I picked [Clary] up and she just melted into my chest and I just knew it was meant to be.” Maria picked up Clary as an eight week old puppy in February of 2020, the same day that she turned Vivvy into Professional Training to be placed with someone. After lots of tears from dropping off Vivvy, Clary filled the Vivvy shaped hole in Maria’s heart.

The whole owner training process was stressful for Maria because she had no one to rely on. Just one month after picking up Clary, the Covid19 pandemic hit the United States and suddenly the University of Central Florida sent everyone home. Maria was granted permission to stay in the dorms because her family lives outside of the county. “It felt very lonely throughout the owner training process and trying to train during Covid while everything was closed.” Challenges like finding spaces to train in or socializing Clary to people arose due to the unsafe nature of Covid. Maria worked incredibly hard training Clary and setting her up for success during these unprecedented times. On top of learning basic obedience, service dogs need to learn how to do these and be comfortable in various environments. They later learn advanced tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. Maria made due with the circumstances that Covid created and did as much public access training as she could safely.

Maria had a lot riding on training Clary. “Just because you train a dog doesn't mean that they will be successful, so you also risk the chance of your dog not working out at all, and now you are at two ends of loss. So if Clary didn’t work out, I would be screwed because I can’t afford to take on another dog into my life right now.” Luckily Clary loves working and it’s shown through her tail always wagging and her readiness to please. Maria shared that every few years owner trainers have to retrain a whole new dog for themselves, which can be physically and emotionally challenging. “We don't get the option to reapply [for a service dog through a training organization], we have to start all over again, which is hard and I know my health will not be any better in 8-10 years, it will definitely be worse.”

After putting so much energy, money, time, and effort into training Clary, Maria gets understandably upset when people question the validity of Clary as a service animal. “There isn't a wide acceptance of owner training.” Maria noticed that a lot of the friends she had through puppy raising no longer wanted to be associated with her anymore. After reaching out to other people in the owner trainer community, she learned that many people have unfortunately also experienced similar situations. Within the Service Animal Community, there tends to be a lot of judgment and stigma, often targeted at owner trainers. The people she once considered close friends while raising Vivvy, started excluding her and Clary from social events. It escalated to not allowing Clary to come to club events, and gossiping about her her. As Historian of the club, Maria was expected to come but without her service dog, who is legally allowed public access.

The outright ableism that they displayed was disappointing enough, but even more so since they raise service dogs for people with disabilities, like Maria. Even while she was raising Vivvy, Maria had experienced subtle ableism from her peers. “People in the club apparently were talking about me behind my back, saying that I should not be a raiser, that I was not qualified, that I was not healthy enough to be a raiser, despite being able to raise this dog already for a year,” Maria said. Obviously, she did a fine job and Vivvy is a happily working service dog. The actions of these few club members poorly represent the mission of puppy raising, as well as the thousands of hardworking volunteers that dedicate their time and money towards placing service dogs for people who need them. While there are many puppy raising clubs across the country that do a great job ensuring they are an ally to the disability community, this does prove that as allies, we need to do more work to prevent ableism in all settings. There is always room for growth.

Struggles with Stigma

Young Brazilian woman, Maria, stands in a gazebo with her white standard poodle service dog, Clary.

Along with this, It’s been hard for Maria to come to terms with her disability herself because she looks “normal,” but now has a four legged label that screams “I am disabled.” When Maria told her parents that she was diagnosed with Lupus, her father questioned her diagnosis and had her go home to Brazil so that their doctors could confirm it. “Culturally, he did not accept the diagnosis because it came from an American doctor.” They are starting to accept her disability but they don't understand how much it affects her. Maria tends to mask her disability when she is home because in the past they have not taken her seriously.

“With my parents not accepting [my disability], it took me even longer to accept it myself." It took her doctor literally sitting her down to confront the harsh reality that if she didn't accept her conditions and help herself, that she would go into kidney failure. After trying her luck, she quickly realized something imperative: “Acceptance was my only option unless I wanted things to get bad.”

It wasn’t until Clary was about a year old that she told her family about having a service animal. She showed them some of Clary’s skills like tugging open a refrigerator and performing deep pressure therapy. They finally understood her importance when they witnessed Clary alert and respond to one of Maria’s cardiac episodes. “It’s just really hard in general for a parent to accept that there is something wrong with their child. It’s hard to think that ‘I brought a child into this world and I don't want anything to be wrong with them. I want them to be safe.’ This isn't something that they can protect me from because it is my body literally internally attacking itself”

It doesn’t make accepting her health any easier when the general public asks intrusive questions. On the outside Maria appears to be a young and able bodied person, so the general public tends to question why she needs a service animal. But “When someone makes me uncomfortable and won't stop, I will make them uncomfortable back.” While walking on campus, accompanied by her sidekick Clary, Maria encountered an elderly couple. Minding her business, Maria walks past them when the woman sternly approached her.

Stranger: Why does your dog have a vest?

Maria: She’s a service animal and in training to help me with my disabilities

Stranger: what? You’re young, you can’t have anything