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How Service Dogs Help People

A service dog is specially trained to perform work for a person with a disability.  There are more than 80 million service dogs aiding Americans.  What are some of the specific ways that K-9 partners offer support?

The companionship that a dog brings into a person’s life brings with it health benefits, including an increase in fitness, lower stress, and improved contentment.  Service dogs go a step further to perform specific tasks that their owner is unable to do.  This allows a person with a disability to live a more independent life. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) identifies a service dog as one who is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”  It defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”  Tasks that a service dog may perform will be directly related to the nature of the owner’s disability.  The following illustrates the range of services a dog may perform:

Type of Service Dog Range of Services Performed
Guide Dogs Assist visually impaired persons in navigating.
Hearing Dogs Alert those who are deaf or hard of hearing to important sounds.
Mobility Dogs Assist those who use wheelchairs or walking devices and those who have balance issues.
Medical Alert Dogs Signal the onset of a seizure or to a concern with blood sugar levels, or other medical issue.
Psychiatric Service Dogs Assist with disabilities such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia, and other mental health challenges.

Some of the specific tasks a service dog may perform in the midst of an emergency include, bringing the phone to his owner in order to call 911 or someone else for help, barking at a speaker phone in order to signal an emergency, interrupting his owner during a psychiatric experience, and alerting or leading others to his owner when the owner is in distress or somehow incapacitated.  There are also many daily tasks that a service dog may perform, including opening or closing doors, drawers and refrigerators, picking up dropped items, bring the mail to their owner, carry medications or other necessities for their owner in a specialized back pack, or helping their owner stand up from his seat or climb the stairs.   For all these reasons and more, a service dog can be an invaluable asset to someone who would otherwise struggle with independent living. 

What breeds of dogs are service dogs?

Service dogs come in a wide range of breeds, and can be various sizes as well.  They simply need to be of adequate size to perform tasks needed by their disabled companion.  Larger dogs are usually used for mobility assistance since they have sufficient height to reach things that might be on counters, and they have sufficient strength to move items when needed.  A smaller dog may be utilized for tasks such as alerting to medical issues, like seizure onset.  The most common breeds used as service dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepards.  Each of these breeds tends to have a high level of trainability and versatility, and an excellent temperament.  The range of breeds used for service dogs does not end there, however.  Poodles, Pomeranians, Collies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands, and more can all be used in service for various things.

For a service dog to be effective, he must be highly trained so that he is able to focus on his owner, able to block out distractions, and able to perform specific tasks. 

Emotional support animals are used to provide comfort just by being with a person.  Because these dogs are not trained to perform a specific job for a person with a disability, they do not qualify as service dogs under the ADA.  There is a clear distinction between a psychiatric service dog that has been trained to sense when an anxiety attack is about to happen and to take specific action to help avoid or lessen the attack,  and an emotional support animal that is just meant to provide comfort by their presence.  For this reason, an emotional support animal is not allowed access to public facilities under the ADA.  Some states or local governments have allowed it, however, and owners are therefore urged to check with their state, county and city governments for information on access to public places for emotional support animals. 

Where do I find a service dog?

If you, or a person you know, is in need of a service dog, you will want to find a professional service dog trainer that carries the high standards needed to develop an effective service dog.  There are both for-profit and non-profit organizations that train service dogs.  Costs can be high, but there are organizations that can help with financial aid for those in need of a service dog.  You are encouraged to work with an experienced and well reputed organization or trainer.  Get recommendations and gather information to make an informed decision. 

How do service dogs get trained?

It is possible to train your own service dog.  The ADA does not require that service dogs be professionally trained.  If you are going to do so, you want to find a dog that is able to be calm, even in unfamiliar settings; is alert, but not overly reactive; has a desire to please; is able to learn and remember what he has been taught; can be friendly with others in many different situations and environments; can consistently perform tasks as required.  Because young puppies tend to be easily distracted by nature, it is not recommended that you start with full training as a service dog until the dog is at least six months old.

If you are training a service dog, you will want to start with the basic skills.  This includes house training and teaching the dog to relieve himself on command in different places.  Make sure the dog is well socialized in a variety of environments, both with people and with other animals.  Teach simple commands like sit, stay, lie down, and come.  Make sure that the dog can focus and execute commands in a wide range of settings, without becoming distracted.  He should also be able to be as well behaved off the leash, as when he is leashed.  Finally, because this dog is to be a working dog, he should be trained to not greet other people, and to know when he is on duty versus when he is off duty.

Be aware that many dogs cannot pass desired standards for this range of what are considered to be basic skills of a service dog.  In fact, drop-out rates for service dog candidates can be 50-70%.   If you are struggling to adequately train your dog at this level, consider hiring a professional, but also realize that he may just not be cut out for the type of work for which a service dog is required.

Once your dog has mastered the basics, is well socialized, and can avoid an array of distractions, there will be specific tasks that you will want to train him in order to support the needs of the person that he will be serving.  These should be identified based on both the environment in which he will be working, and the nature of the tasks for which the disabled individual has the greatest need.  This whole process of training typically takes two years or more. 

Can I take my service dog anywhere?

Under the ADA guidelines, a dog that meets the definition of a service dog is allowed to accompany their handler anywhere the general public has access.  This includes in your apartment, in restaurants, at beaches, on planes or other transportation, etc.  Note that service dogs must be harnessed or leashed when in public, unless these devices will interfere with the service dog’s work or the individual’s disability will prevent use of these devices.  In all cases, the handler must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.  A service dog who is not controlled may be asked to leave a public area.

Does my service dog have to be registered or wear a vest?

It is not required for a service dog to be registered, however, doing so can make it easier for a person with a disability to have their rights respected by businesses, landlords and others who may question their need to have the dog in places where animals would otherwise be denied.  Applying for registration of a service dog online is relatively easy, and you will not need a doctor’s note to do so. 

There is also no requirement for a service dog to wear a vest or other identification which designates them as a service animal.  It is still something that you may want to consider, however, since visible identification avoids confusion when you take your service dog into public areas. 

When it is not apparent what services an animal is providing to an individual, that person may be asked the following questions under ADA regulations:  (1) “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and (2) “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

Summary

Service dogs can come in all shapes and sizes, and will perform a broad range of tasks specific to the needs of the person whom they serve.  While it is recommended that you seek professional help in selecting and training a service dog, it is possible to do this on your own.  Service dogs do not have to be registered or wear a vest, although both are advantageous.  A service dog may be taken anywhere the public is allowed, but they are required to be leashed or controlled in public places.  With the range of benefits that a service dog can offer, it is a truly wonderful asset to a person with a disability.

Rebecca Chesonis

Rebecca Chesonis is a business professional with a lifelong love for dogs. She has owned and worked around dogs since she was a child. She has a love for all breeds, and a particular fondness for large dogs. She loves to write articles and create videos that will help you take care of your dog and find activities to make life with your dog even more fun!

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