Service animals make all of the difference in the lives of many people. Their assistance can range from guiding a seeing-impaired person safely through intersections to providing companionship and support for someone suffering from PTSD.
These highly-trained dogs (and very occasionally, miniature horses) drastically improve their human’s quality of life and may even save their life on more than one occasion.
What is a service animal?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.”
Legally, accommodations must be made for service dogs, unless the dog is misbehaving or out of control. The ADA states that “Individuals with disabilities can bring their service animals in all areas of public facilities and private businesses where members of the public, program participants, clients, customers, patrons, or invitees are allowed.”
Accommodations are also expected to be made for miniature horses that have been trained as a service animal.
Types of Service Animals
Guide dogs, hearing or signal dogs, and mobility assistance dogs are the most common types of service animal. They assist people with disabilities in everyday tasks such as:
- Helping blind or seeing-impaired people travel safely
- Alerting deaf people to the presence of others
- Retrieving items that are out of reach
- Reminding a person to take medication
- Pulling a wheelchair
- Providing physical support or assistance
- Closing and opening doors
- Helping those with psychiatric or neurological disabilities
- Finding help when needed
- Providing non-violent protection or rescue effort
Medical response dogs (also called seizure alert or seizure response dogs) have the incredible ability to sense when an epileptic seizure is coming on and warn their human. They can sense changes in a person’s odor, respiration rate, and behavior, and are also able to sense when a psychiatric episode is coming on and when diabetic’s blood sugar is low.
PTSD service dogs are trained to assist and support those who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Service Dogs for America, PTSD dogs are trained to:
- Alleviate anxiety/distress and provide psycho-emotional grounding by nudging, pawing, and leaning.
- Assist a person in waking from night terrors and nightmares.
- Distract a person from an event or specific maladaptive behavior by nudging, pawing, and licking.
- Bring medication to a person on command or when alerted to do so by a timer/alarm.
- Stand in front of or circle an individual in crowded areas in order to create personal space in a non-aggressive manner.
- Lead an individual safely to a building exit when experiencing an anxiety or panic attack.
- Get help by alerting another person or activate an emergency button or alert system.
What qualifies a service animal, and how are they trained?
The U.S. has no regulation or certification process for service animals, so it’s imperative that the service animal community regulates the standards of training for service animals and their humans.
International standards require a minimum of 120 hours of training over at least a six-month period. Thirty of those hours are spent in public learning to handle the distractions and stressful situations that can occur.
Training a service animal begins with three basic steps:
While tasking is complicated because it entails training the animal to do the tasks that make it a service animal, proofing is usually the most difficult and time consuming. Proofing is the process of training the dog to be “on alert” and undistracted by its surroundings for long periods of time.
Because if the intense, complex, and time-consuming nature of this level of training, it is best left to the experts. If you are one of those experts, rover.com advises that you “help ensure canine competency and any future situation where your dog (or you) might be questioned” by documenting the training process, taking the public access test, and registering with a reputable service like the United States Service Dog Registry.
Basic expectations for a service dogs include:
- No aggressive behavior (biting, barking, growling, etc.)
- Only urinating or defecating on command
- Surcease of sniffing behaviors
- No solicitations for food or affection
- Curbed excitement and hyperactivity
Here is a public access test provided by Assistance Dogs International (ADI).
Service animals are a valuable tool and companion for those who need their assistance. However, it’s important to remember that they are animals who deserve care and respect. The best long-term companionships are those where love, patience, and daily effort are equally exchanged.