For people with disabilities a service dog can mean the difference between dependence and restrictions and freedom. These remarkable dogs can perform an almost endless list of tasks to assist their partners. Because of the service dogs I’ve had over the past 16+ years I’ve been able to be active and enjoy many of the things I had been unable to do after my spinal cord injury. So is a service dog right for you?
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” “For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”
Most people are familiar with Guide dogs that assist blind and vision impaired people navigate the world. But there are also dogs that assist deaf/hearing impaired people, dogs that assist people with neurological/movement disorders like Parkinson’s and epilepsy, and dogs that are trained to help mobility impaired people like me. In fact, there are service dogs for more disabilities and diseases than you have probably imagined! Some people even require two service dogs; for example a person with a visual impairment and a seizure disorder may take two dogs trained for specific tasks with him everywhere. Or a mobility impaired person may require two dogs to provide stability when walking. However, if having two dogs in a small space would cause disruption of service the staff may request that one of the dogs be left outside.
The ADA used to use the term “service animal” and people had service monkeys (mostly quadriplegic folks) and even mini-horses. But, because some people took advantage of the term animal the ADA had to be revised. No, folks, there’s no such thing as a service cat or service snake. And believe me people tried taking their pets everywhere with them under the pretense that it was a service animal.
Therapy, companion, and emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs and do not have the rights that a service dog has to accompany its owner in public places. If you can’t take a pet into an establishment or venue you can’t take one of these dogs in either. There are psychiatric service dogs but they must perform tasks directly related to the psychiatric condition. For example, if the dog has been trained to take specific actions to lessen or avoid an anxiety attack or remind its partner to take medication it is a service dog. Merely providing comfort to the person is not a task and the dog would not be considered a service dog.
Things to consider if you wonder is a service dog right for you:
If you are deaf/hearing impaired a hearing dog can alert you to smoke/carbon monoxide alarms. The dog can be trained to alert you if your phone is ringing or if someone is at the door. Hearing dogs can be trained to let you know if your child is crying or if someone is calling for you. These dogs can alert you to sirens (tornado sirens, etc.). The tasks a hearing service dog can do can make your life infinitely easier.
If you have a neurological or movement disorder your service dog can alert you to an imminent event that could potentially cause injuries. Seizure dogs alert their partners in time for their person to be safe during the event. These dogs keep their partners away from stairs when a seizure is coming. Dogs for people with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders can be trained to break the “freeze” that some people experience with these disorders. This allows people to go out without another human with them. These dogs can also be trained to remind people to take medications on schedule.
If you have mobility impairment a service dogs can be trained to assist you with balance/counter-balance, assist you when you want to stand, sit, or lie down. They can carry items for you and pick up items you drop. They can be trained to open and close doors, turn light switches on and off, and retrieve things from cupboards and the refrigerator for you. They can be trained to use an ATM, pay a cashier and much more!
My Houston helped with laundry and really enjoyed doing it! He put clothes in our front loading washer, took them out when they were done, and put them in the front loading dryer. He also took items from the dryer and put them in a laundry basket which he then pulled to wherever I wanted to do the folding. Service dogs of this type can pull a wheelchair (depending on the size of the dog and the size of the partner) for short distances. Houston loved pulling me in my wheelchair and I often had to really rein him in. I think he would have loved to been on a racetrack!
In future posts I will go into more depth about the tasks that various service dogs can be trained to perform. I will also discuss the pros and cons of using an owner-trained service dog and what to look for in a dog you’re considering as an owner-trained service dog. Be aware that “owner-trained” doesn’t necessarily mean you have to train it personally. The term really refers to any service dog that was not trained by a service dog program. I will also discuss how to choose the right dog and breed for a service dog.
In the meantime, if you think you might benefit from partnering with a service dog and have questions, I am always happy to help in every way I can!