Life with Dempsey, My Parkinson’s Service Dog

Parkinson's service dog guides owner at educational event

Written by Brian Reedy

Since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago, I’ve learned that one of the most important assets to have along this path is a great care team. And fortunately I have one.

I have great doctors, supportive family and friends and my amazing wife who has been by my side every step of the way.

However, no matter how invested our care partners are in helping us live well every day, we can’t expect them to be with us 24/7. They have lives, too. And for their own health and well-being, they need time to feed and nurture themselves. Time that doesn’t involving caring for us or worrying about us.

This is where my buddy Dempsey comes in.

Dempsey Puppy

When my wife and I first decided to have a dog help out with my Parkinson’s, we weren’t sure which avenue to pursue. Should I get an emotional support animal or a service animal?  

Here’s what we learned:

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are animals that help meet the emotional needs of an individual and they primarily provide comfort in dealing with things like depression and/or anxiety.  

Emotional support animals are typically dogs and cats, but may include other domesticated animals such as mice, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs, mini pigs and more.

In order to legally qualify for an emotional support animal, you need to have a prescription letter from a licensed mental health provider stating that you’re under their care for a mental disability as described in the DSM IV or V, and that your mental disability substantially limits at least one major life activity.

A person with an emotional support animal is legally covered by the Fair Housing Authority Act and can therefore live with their emotional support animal even in housing that may have rules against animals. They are also allowed to bring their emotional support animals on airplanes based on the Air Carriers Act, though I do suggest everyone call their airline ahead of time to learn about their specific policy. An emotional support animal is not covered by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that these animals are not allowed in most public places and it’s up to the management of individual places of business to set a policy for these types of support animals.

Service Animals

A service animal is a dog that’s been trained to help a person with specific tasks related to their disability. Service dogs are recognized by the ADA and are lawfully allowed in most public places to assist you with your disabilities.

Airport Dempsey Parkinson's Service Dog

There’s no legally recognized licensing authority for licensing service dogs so anything claiming to be so is most likely a scam.  

Ideally you need to be able to explain that you have a disability, though you don’t need to tell them what your specific disability is, and tell them what specific tasks the dog can help you with. It’s a great idea to carry any documentation you have (at least have a doctor’s letter acknowledging that you have a recognized disability and have your dog’s most current shot records) with you at all times in case it’s requested.

After doing our research, we decided I needed a service dog. I wanted my dog to help me when I:

  • Freeze
  • Drop things
  • Lose balance or fall
  • Walk for exercise  
  • Need help maintaining good forward momentum
  • Have to take medications (on time)
  • Need to alert others for help

In order for a dog to be able to help you with all of these very specific tasks, they need special and consistent training. A service dog needs to be singularly focused on you and what’s going on around you. They need to be able to stay calm and remain focused despite the people and noises that cross their path. And they must do these things without misbehaving. No matter what.

Because of the standards that are expected of service dogs and because of the responsibilities they have to keep us safe, many people choose to get dogs that have been specifically trained by dog training experts for people with Parkinson’s.

It’s very difficult to find a Parkinson’s service dog and if you do find one, there’s usually quite a long wait. So, I took a different path. As my wife and I have had multiple Border Collies over the years, that’s the kind of dog I wanted. And I wanted to train him myself. While it hasn’t been easy, I’ve had some great people helping me along the way.

Dempsey and Siblings

In my next post, I’ll fill you in on all of my best training tips and offer suggestions for those of you who might be considering training a service dog of your own.

The Fully Accessible Guide to Flying for People with Disabilities
How to Make Flying with Disabilities Less Stressful
Life-changing companions: How to afford a service dog


Among other things, Brian Reedy is a retired teacher and now, a dog trainer. He’s also part of our cohort of Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors are volunteers who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. Connect with one of our Ambassadors and begin your journey today of living well with Parkinson’s!

Help Move Research on Service Dogs and Parkinson’s Forward

If you’d like to be part of early research efforts that are looking into the efficacy of service dogs for those living with Parkinson’s, please take this survey.

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Comments (6)

This is a very interesting and informative blog especially since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease twelve years ago.
The border collies are beautiful.


My husband was diagnosed 4 years ago and I know our border collie is quite aware of his disability. It never dawned on me to train her as a service dog! She’s too old now, but I would still like to try. Which of the tasks you list would be the simplest to start with? She is well trained, but is losing her hearing. Is there any hope? Our next border collie will definitely be trained, and we look forward to your updates on the matter. Thank You!

Some people say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but I disagree. Even if your border collie is losing her hearing, there is still hope! Since she will need to rely more on hand signals than verbal cues for commands, I would recommend the first working on “watch me” or “look at me”. You can start by showing your dog a treat to get her attention and then raising it up next to your eyes. Your dog’s eyes will follow the treat up to your face, making eye contact, at which time you can praise her by giving her the treat immediately. After a few training sessions you can try without the treat in hand, just point to your eye and immediately reward her when she makes eye contact. In addition to treats, a favorite toy can be another great reward for a dog who cannot hear verbal praise. Be sure to train “watch me” or “look at me” in a variety of settings so you know you can get her attention even in more distracting surroundings. With their attention, you can begin training new tasks with hand signals. Hope this helps in your training journey!

Great article and I can’t wait for the one on training. Do you have your training on video/YouTube/somewhere?

Thanks for commenting, Sherri. You can read Brian’s follow up post on training Dempsey by clicking here.. We don’t currently have any videos of showcasing how to train service dogs. If you read A Helping Paw, you can see some Parkinson’s tasks performed by a service dog in the embedded video. I hope this helps!

Great article! Thanks for sharing your knowledge regarding how to train an ESA.

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