Gizmo the tiny chihuahua wears a service dog vest and focuses on his handler at the doctor's office.

Gizmo isn’t your typical-looking service dog. He’s small enough to fit inside of a purse, but despite his tiny stature, he has huge capabilities. Gizmo is a hearing alert dog. He helps his handler by alerting her to things like the door or the phone and guides her to the source of the sound he hears.

We chatted with Gizmo’s handler, Jena, to learn more about service dogs in general, and how a chihuahua stacks up as a service dog. Jena is an amazing businesswoman who founded Hearing Lines, a unique business dedicated to making sturdy safety clips for cochlear implants.

Here are our questions and her responses, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Do you find it easier or harder to have a small dog as a service dog?

A: Both. It’s a little bit easier and a little bit harder at the same time. It makes it easier for obvious reasons: having somebody that tells you what noises and sounds are around rather than you having to figure out how to hear the things that you can’t hear.

It makes it safer as well. There are many things people take for granted because they can hear. Think of things like smoke alarms and fire engines. These are important things to hear. Think of how unsafe you would feel if you couldn’t hear them.

Gizmo makes my life easier and safer, but there are challenges as well. Many people with disabilities choose not to have a service dog because it can make life difficult in other ways. You’re now responsible for another life, all their needs and care. You have to make sure they’ve done their business, gotten a drink, and all their other needs too before you can go about your day.

Just going inside a non-pet-friendly building can be a hassle. My disability is invisible, so I get stopped a lot with people saying, “May I pet your dog?” or “Oh, how cute!”

Finally, fake service dogs are a big problem. Many people disobey the law and bring their pets into stores as fake service dogs. This makes it harder for me, because I have to protect my dog. I don’t know if that dog is going to be nice or aggressive. It’s like having a child in a way because you still have to cover their health expenses and their food expenses and things like that.

Q: Did Gizmo have to undergo any special training to become a service dog?

Yes. I opted to train my own service dog, getting help with a trainer when I didn’t know how to train a particular task. As long as they do “tasks” to help with a disability on a daily basis and can pass an unofficial puplic access test then it is perfectly legal to train your own dog.

Q: Have you had any challenges with training your dog?

With me training him I haven’t had any difficulties, but that’s because I had a previous service dog and I did what I call, “monkey see monkey do training.” I believe that the official name is tandem training or tandem work, but it’s basically where you train alongside an already trained dog so that the untrained dog can see this dog is doing something and he gets praise and treats for it. They will often copy the behavior so they can get praise and treats too.

In the beginning when I had a service dog for the first time I did have a professional trainer come to my house and help me, but that’s just for the things I didn’t know. I could already do regular training just because I’ve had pets my entire life. The second time, I was able to take the reins myself so to speak, but I definitely recommend people who have never trained a dog to consult a professional.

I also recommend those interested in training their own service dog watch a ton of YouTube videos, just to make sure that they can do it properly. The training can be so difficult even if you know what you are doing, so every little bit of information helps.

A cut out of Gizmo with no background focusing on his alert style to sound. He lets his owner know there is something to pay attention to in the picture.
Gizmo alerting his owner to a sound.

Q: How can ordinary people help make your life easier?

I think education is key. The more people that we educate about service dogs and why is it so important to not pet them, the more likely that people will follow the law. You are still going to have some bad apples but that’s with anything regardless of what it is.

I’ve had incidents where I’ve had trouble being allowed into a business because of my service dog, and it ended up in an argument. I’ve also had incidents where people bringing their pets into pet friendly places made it unsafe for us.

It’s easier for me as far as getting people to not pet my dog because he’s so low to the ground that I can stop people before they even get halfway and he’s also small enough that I can just pick him up and sometimes carry him because he’s so small.

If it’s very crowded, like in a grocery store for example, he has gotten smooshed by shopping carts because people don’t notice him. I get it, but when I had a larger service dog I noticed it was easy for people to just walk by and swipe him or pet him.

I also never tell the real name of my service dog because then they can’t call the dog and the dog won’t get distracted or something like that.

I’m pretty open with people to tell them, “Hey please don’t pet my dog and I tell them why and usually have the time to explain or I just say please don’t pet him he’s working.”

A lot of people put a big red stop sign on a service dog vest or have a sign saying, “Please don’t pet” because petting distracts the dog from working. It’s a big problem.

You can take more extreme measures, but usually that’s not necessary. At my house we go by the quote that my partner and I live by, which I put on the front of both of our medical alert bracelets:  “courtesy cost you nothing.”

Everyone deserves your courtesy, but not everyone deserves your kindness. I always try to improve their education whether they are willing to listen or not, all you can do is try.

Q: Tell us a bit about what Gizmo does on his days off! (Full disclosure: I did not know that service dogs get days off. It makes total sense now. I’m glad Jena mentioned it!)

Every service dog gets off work and gets time to relax. Some days, they don’t need to work even though they may do a few things during the day or night depending on what their job is. Like my friend and I once went to the beach with her seeing eye dog and she took his uniform and leash off and he ran into the bay and was trying to bask on someone’s boat. I had to swim out and get him!

If I don’t need to be listening to anything that day, or I’m not going out, then I let him just be a dog. He hangs out with my kids. His favorite thing to do is sunbathe.

He will still respond to the smoke detector or the door and other stuff, but he doesn’t need to be actively listening all day and night 24/7. No service dog does that they all need rest and play time just like humans. They aren’t machines after all.

We greatly appreciate Jena taking the time to chat with us about her service dog. Do you have any questions about service dogs? Let us know in the comments below!

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By Andrea

Andrea is a dedicated dog mom of three chihuahuas. She has over a decade of experience as a dog groomer, chihuahua owner, and more recently as a dog trainer. She loves all things canine, particularly chihuahuas.

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