You don’t have to be severely disabled or in a wheelchair to be eligible for the benefits of a service dog to help you in many ways in your everyday living.
Service dogs can ease the frustrations caused by illness or disability, by picking up dropped objects, going to get help, opening doors, turning on lights, retrieving telephones, or even sniffing a diabetic’s breath for low blood sugar or awakening a hearing-impaired person when an alarm goes off. The December 2009 issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter covers the various ways in which service dogs help people manage serious illnesses and disabilities.
Service dogs were first used after World War I, when they were trained to guide blind war veterans. Since that time, they have been trained in many special areas, which include:
Skilled assistance dogs – These dogs help those who are physically disabled. They can open doors, pull wheelchairs, turn on lights, retrieve the telephone, fetch objects, and summon help.
Hearing dogs – These dogs alert their hearing impaired handlers to alarm clocks, doorbells, smoke alarms, approaching vehicles, or someone calling the owner’s name.
Diabetes response dogs – These dogs carry objects such as juice bottles or snacks for low blood sugar pick-me-ups. They can also sniff the handler’s breath for low blood sugar.
Alzheimer’s helper dogs – These dogs are trained to stay with a person who has Alzheimer’s, or fetch help if the person starts to wander or gets into an unsafe situation.
Parkinson’s disease helper dogs – These dogs can assist with balance.
Psychiatric service dogs – These dogs help people who are disabled with severe mental illness by calming anxieties, prodding their handler to administer self care, and interrupting harmful compulsions.
Therapy dogs are not allowed the same access by law as service dogs. A good way to remember the difference between service animals and therapy animals is to think for whom each dog performs. A service dog works for its owner, while a therapy dog typically goes out to work for someone else.
Service dogs have a high level of protection under the law. They must be allowed to live anywhere, even in accommodations where other pets are not allowed. They can accompany their owners into restaurants and grocery stores. Therapy dogs are limited to traveling back and forth to where they are working, and into the buildings in which they have a specific job, such as a hospital with an animal therapy program, or a senior citizens’ residence with such a program.
Emotional support animals, however, are recognized as necessary to the well-being of the owner, and are protected under housing law. Even if there is a no-pet clause in a lease, an emotional support dog must be allowed in the same living quarters as its owner. It’s always good to check the laws of your state and keep a copy available in case questions arise. A note from a licensed health professional is also a good reference to share with people who are unfamiliar with laws related to emotional support animals.
Many breeds can be trained as service dogs, but Labrador or Golden Retrievers are most commonly used. Their specialized training takes six months to a year. A week or two of training with the handler present is necessary for the dogs to learn to work as a team.
Service dogs can increase safety and independence for people with disabilities, but they aren’t always the right solution for everyone. Even a well-trained dog can misbehave or be annoying. Dogs need exercise, attention, grooming and medical care, and the owner must be willing to see to these needs.
Cost is a large factor. The average cost to train a dog is $10,000 to $20,000, although there are charity groups that will cover this cost. The Delta Society has a directory of service dog organizations that help train and place service dogs. Many of these are charitable, but some charge for their services.
Disabled U.S. veterans are provided dogs by America’s Vet Dogs and Patriot Paws, among other organizations that train service dogs for returning military veterans.
A listing of service dog trainers by state is available at: http://wolfpacks.com/products/servicedog/trainers.html.