Signal Boost: Working Dog Eye Exams

For the fifth year in a row, during the month of May, the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) will offer free eye exams to working assistance dogs in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. This is called the ACVO/Merial National Service Animal Eye Event.

This is not as straightforward as it might seem. Exams are not just for assistance dogs for people with disabilities (guide, hearing, and service dogs). Therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs, detection dogs, and police dogs are also eligible. Certain working horses are eligible, too. To take part, the handler/owner or agency responsible for the dog must register.

However, if your working assistance animal was trained by their partner or by a private trainer, and not a school or program, it’s unclear whether the program is open to you.

The informational site says, on its “Who is eligible?” page:

Dogs must be active ‘working dogs’ that were certified by a formal training program or organization or are currently enrolled in a formal training program to qualify. The certifying organization could be national, regional or local in nature. Essentially the dogs need to have some sort of certification and/or training paperwork to qualify for this particular this program.

Apparently, in the past a few people tried to pass off pets as working dogs; thus this program is pretty clearly defined as “for program dogs only.” If you’re a partner-trainer, you can still speak to your local veterinary ophthalmologist and ask if they can give you any sort of discount. When I spoke to mine, and he found out I have a bouvier des Flandres in training as my service dog, he agreed to provide a free exam, in part because glaucoma is a genetic problem in bouviers. I was really touched by his generosity. I hadn’t expected that. I hope to set up our appointment in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you are in the San Francisco/Berkeley/Bay area of California and you would like your private- or partner-trained SDiT or assistance dog (or pet dog, cat, rabbit, horse, lizard, etc.), to receive a comprehensive eye exam from a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, you are in luck! A complete eye exam has been donated to Marlena’s Teaching Fund by Animal Eye Care of California’s East Bay.

It is not free, but it does offer two major bonuses that you would not get if you made an appointment with a veterinary ophthalmologist under other circumstances:

1. You’ll get the exam at a substantial discount. The standard fee for this service is $226. The minimum starting bid we’re asking is $70. That’s a discount of over two-thirds!

2. You will be supporting a very worthwhile cause — assisting a person with disabilities to cover her own medical costs and pay for her dog’s food, which will help her to continue to teach the Nonviolent Communication teleclasses that I and my friends with disabilities and chronic illnesses attend.

Please share these links around. Share the ACVO/Merial link with program-trained assistance dog teams. And if you know any animal lovers in the Bay area of California, please share this link with them. Thank you!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (whose first lymphoma sign was a red eye), and Barnum, SD/SDiT

5 Responses to “Signal Boost: Working Dog Eye Exams”

  1. 1 Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone March 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    If I was in the position of training myself a partner (It’s a goal for in a couple years time) and lived out there, I’d borrow money from my parents for the bid. But I’m not.

    (I did share the auction as a whole with my mother though, as I think she’d enjoy/appreciate it.)

    Now I have to go burn- I medan, dose myself with vitamin D by sitting in the sun. meh.

  2. 2 Karyn March 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I get so tired of this for programs only stuff. This particular program makes this claim of previous fraud however it never was open to owner trained teams so how could there have been fraud. I know some owner trainers who cross train as therapy dogs so thay can get the free exams
    In our area, the person who does these exams has very risky accessibility. She also is not complete enough and can easily miss some really nasty diseases and eye changes because she does not dilate the dogs eyes. Its really important to know that not all Veterinary Ophthamologists are thorough enough to place a guide or service dogs eye health in the hands of.
    Sure I’m a bit bitter about all this because I went into her with very specific symptoms Thane was having and she still did not dilate his eyes to be sure she was not missing something. I wasted a lot of money on that exam only to have Thane diagnosed with Lyme just a month later
    My point I guess is to really be sure that the ophthamologist one sees is really thorough and understands that if they miss something the handler and the dog could be injured or killed.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler March 14, 2012 at 6:31 pm


    I think your resentment comes from a very understandable place. You raise good points. One thing I like about the place that’s offering the eye exam for Marlena’s auction is that there is a page that lists what an exam covers — all the different procedures and what they are to check for.

    For those who are reading this and don’t know, I also had a service dog suffer needlessly due to a veterinary ophthalmologist’s incompetence — actually, two of them. It’s a very long story, so I think I’ll post about it as an actual blog post, but the short version is that I was concerned about Jersey’s right eye from the day she arrived, I had three GP vets check it, then two eye doctors both missed correctly diagnosing it when problems arose, then Jersey went into crisis, it was misdiagnosed by the eye doctor at the ER again, and the result was that she lost the eye. As a mobility service dog, she was still able to work, but obviously if she had been a guide dog while all this was going on, I would have been in serious trouble.

  4. 4 Karyn March 14, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Thanks Sharon
    I knew with your negative history you’d understand where I was coming from. In our area its impossible to see anyone else than I saw, unless you need a specialty hospital. That requires a referral with an actual eye problem that can’t be met by local opthamologist. I’m going to look into finding a CERF opthamologist I think. I’d be quite shocked if the one I saw has CERF certification credentials.
    For now, Thane’s doing OK but anytime he has collagen skin upheaval and starts ice walking on tile store floors again, I freak out a bit. I know realistically his working career may have been shortened by the extremes his Lyme got to before it was diagnosed and treated.
    I dont think its asking too much to have an opthamologist actually do a full exam with dilation especially when its a guide dog with visual disturbance
    I wonder when an owner trainer will file suit though against that organization doing the eye exams. That’s what happened with Californias Assistance Dog Special Allowance Someone finally got fed up with the non-ADA guideline and sued. It opened the door for many handlers like myself (for Met) to get the stipend each month. Its probably only a matter of time.

  5. 5 brilliantmindbrokenbody March 18, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Thank you for letting me know about this! And Karyn, thanks for mentioning the limitations of this sort of program.

    I would never have thought to take Hudson to have his eyes checked unless he had symptoms, to be honest. Silly, considering that MY eyes get checked routinely. Anyhow, I intend to take advantage of this.

    While I acknowledge that it’s privilege, I am very thankful for the ways that having a program dog smooths the way for me. I will mention to the provider that non-program dogs should be accepted as well, for what my saying so is worth.


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