We all think of the domesticated dog as being man’s best friend, but throughout history dogs have provided invaluable support to humans in ways other than companionship. From assisting the visually impaired to detecting seizures, dogs are being trained help improve the quality of life for thousands of people.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Here are five types of service dogs that are assisting people who have physical, neurological and mental health needs.
Perhaps the most well-known type of service dog is the guide dog which helps a blind or visually impaired individual travel safely and avoid obstacles.
The history of guide dogs dates back to World War I when thousands of the soldiers were blinded by poison gas. A German doctor was called away for an emergency while walking with a blind patient. He left his dog behind with the veteran and when he returned, he noticed that the dog seemed to be looking after the man. After this incident he started to formerly train dogs to assist the visually impaired.
Most guide dogs are golden retrievers, Labradors and German shepherds.
Hearing dogs alert deaf and hearing impaired people to specific sounds at home and in public. They are trained to make physical contact with their partner in response to sounds such as sirens, smoke and fire alarms, a doorbell, or a baby’s cries. A hearing dog promotes independence, security, and confidence.
Hearing dogs can be any breed as long as they are healthy and have the right temperament. They need to be energetic and be able to handle stress, noise and crowds. According to Assistance Dogs International, hearing dogs are often small to medium in size and mixed breeds from animal shelters.
Psychiatric service dogs
While guide dogs and hearing dogs help people with physical disabilities, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are trained to assist people who have been diagnosed with emotional or psychiatric disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and anxiety. These dogs perform specific functions that help their partners manage their symptoms so that they can lead healthier lives.
For example, a psychiatric service dog can be trained to recognize signs that their owner might be having a flashback or panic attack. In response, the dog might lick the owner’s face or provide pressure to the owner’s chest as a way to calm them down. A dog aiding someone with depression can be taught how to physically remind them to take their medication or prevent them from oversleeping.
PSDs are often confused with emotional support animals. They are not the same. The difference between the two is that psychiatric service dogs are considered “working dogs” that are trained to perform certain tasks. Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship, but are not trained to complete any specific tasks.
In addition to helping their partners manage symptoms, the dogs provide companionship and affection. The person has a responsibility to care of their dog which also helps them stay motivated.
Mobility assistance dogs
Mobility assistance dogs help people who are physically disabled be more independent. The dogs are trained to perform tasks and chores for adults and children who utilize wheelchairs, prosthetics or other assistive devices. People who benefit from mobility assistance dogs include those who have a spinal cord or brain injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, or spina bifida.
The dogs can open/close doors and cabinets, hit elevator buttons, retrieve dropped objects, turn lights on and off, drag a wheelchair or cane back to a partner, and more. Mobility assistance dogs often are equipped with backpacks to help their partners carry needed items. They can also be trained to physically brace and provide balance support for their partners. To learn more about the many ways these special dogs help their partners, visit Shore Service Dogs, just one of several organizations that trains mobility service dogs.
The types of tasks that will need to be performed determine the type of breed that should be used as a mobility assistance dog. A person who requires brace support will require a dog of a certain size and weight. Some of the most common breeds include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds.
Seizure alert/seizure response dogs
One of the most fascinating, and somewhat controversial types of service dogs is the seizure alert dog. These dogs partner with people who have epilepsy or other seizure disorders and are able to detect when a seizure is about to occur. No one is actually certain how the dogs sense the onset of a seizure but Service Dog Central says that approximately 15% of dogs are naturally able to do so. By alerting their partner that a seizure is imminent, the person can prepare themselves and take precautions so that they do not injure themselves.
While no one doubts that dogs can provide comfort, unconditional love and companionship, some in the medical profession are skeptical about their ability to actually detect a seizure before it starts. The Epilepsy Foundation believes more research is necessary.
Less controversial than seizure alert dogs are seizure response dogs. Also called seizure assistance dogs, these dogs are trained to recognize when a seizure is happening and to respond accordingly. They may bark to alert family members, or may place themselves in a way that would break a fall if the person fell. The dogs can also be trained to get help or activate a life-alert system. This Reading Eagle article highlights a real-life example of how a seizure response dog is helping a former Air Force policeman.
Service dogs are changing people’s lives for the better. If you have a service dog or are planning to get one, it is important to understand your rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act has strict rules pertaining to the rights of people who use service dogs including where the dogs are allowed to go with you. To learn more, visit www.ADA.gov.