With their heightened senses, dogs can be trained to sense when someone is having a panic attack and know when someone with epilepsy is about to have a seizure. They can even sniff out diseases like cancer, adding to many skills that make them excellent candidates for service animals.
A dog's trainable skill can apply to many jobs that utilize their unique abilities. If you are considering an assistance dog to help with your disability and regain your independence, this article will tell you how to qualify for a service dog, how to get one, and what kinds of service dogs are available to help you uphold your own standard of living.
What Is a Service Dog?
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of the United States defines "service animal" as a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. A service dog can be any size and any breed of dog. Individuals with service animals have conditions and disabilities that range from sensory (like blindness or hearing), to psychiatric, physical, and intellectual.
Service animals can accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go including establishments that prepare or serve food regardless of local or state health codes that prohibit animals on the premises.
Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals (ESA), or therapy dogs, do not qualify as service animals. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals do not require specific training. As a result, they are not covered under the ADA, do not get the same rights as service animals, and are limited to specific public places.
Service animals are restricted to dogs and in some cases, miniature horses. Unlike service animals, any animal can be an emotional support animal from a snake to a turkey (both of which were hilariously chronicled by Patricia Marx in The New Yorker back in 2014).
Emotional support dogs are covered under the Fair Housing Act, which allows people with an ESA to have their pet in their home despite a building or landlord's "no pets" policy. Someone with an ESA does not have to pay pet rent or fees for their animal. Traveling on trains or planes is also permitted with an emotional support animal as long as you have the proper documentation and your dog is well-behaved and calm in the vehicle.
All that is required in order to obtain an ESA is a signed letter by a mental health professional, like a therapist of psychiatrist, stating that you have a mental health condition that your pet helps you deal with.
How to Get a Service Dog
Any breed of dog can be a service dog from golden retrievers to bully breeds and chihuahuas to German shepherds. You can either adopt a trained service dog from a reputable trainer or nonprofit organization, or bring your dog to a trainer to teach it to perform service work. Because of the nature of the work or situation that requires you to get a service dog, the former is preferable. Training a dog to be a service animal on your own can take years.
There are many service dog organizations at the state and national level that custom-train dogs to assist people with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and mental disabilities. To qualify for a service animal, the first thing you need to do is get written documentation from a healthcare provider stating that you are being treated for a physical or psychiatric disorder or disability that requires an assistance animal or guide dog. The work a dog has been trained to do must specifically relate to your condition.
Types of Service Dogs
Service dogs go through training processes to learn specific tasks depending on their owner's physical or mental condition. Hearing dogs, mobility service dogs, guide dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and psychiatric service dogs are among the specialized types of trained dogs who can assist a disabled person with various tasks in daily life.
Hearing dogs are trained to alert hard-of-hearing and deaf people to household sounds that are necessary for everyday safety and independence. These dogs are trained to make physical contact and lead their person to the source of the sound. In public, a hearing dog provides their person with increased awareness of their environment. When their dog looks in reaction to a sound, the human will notice it and direct their attention accordingly.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
Mobility assistance dogs are dogs that are trained to assist with mobility for a variety of mobility impairments. Mobility service dogs can push buttons, flip switches, retrieve out-of-reach objects, open automatic doors, and pick up items that slipped out of a person’s hand. They can even call 911.
Seeing Eye Dogs
Seeing eye dogs, also known as guide dogs, are trained to lead the blind and visually impaired around obstacles by taking directional cues from their handler. These dogs are trained to take directional cues, as dogs are red-green colorblind and cannot interpret street signs. The special harness and U-shaped handle fosters communication between the dog and their human.
Diabetic Alert Dogs
Diabetic alert dogs are watchful for chemical changes in their handler's blood sugar. A dog's super sense of smell can detect scent changes associated with hyperglycemic or hypoglycemic events in diabetics that are imperceptible to humans. Dogs can be trained to alert their humans if their blood sugar levels are getting too high or low, then let them know if it's time for some insulin or not.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
A psychiatric service dog is a service dog trained to assist people with mental illnesses including PTSD, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
A psychiatric service dog who assists an individual with PTSD, for example, can do routine room searches and turn on lights. They also make their handlers feel safe in crowded public places.
Psychiatric service dogs can remind their handlers to take their medication, remind them to exercise, wake them up to prevent them from oversleeping, and provide tactile stimulation during an anxiety attack, among other tasks.
Service Dogs: Paws With a Cause
Remember that though you can train a dog to be a service animal yourself, it will take a lot of time. Depending on your situation, you may opt for a pre-trained service dog from a specific organization or trainer who raises dogs to be ready to work from day one. Look into available local service dog organizations in your area.
Dogs are incredibly helpful companions in daily life, especially for people with disabilities. Their problem-solving skills and amazing super-senses make them the perfect pet to train to assist people with disabilities. If you are considering a service dog and have a disability, talk to your medical professional about how a service dog can help with your specific needs.