Service dogs are not family pets; they are working tools for their disabled partners. A variety of breeds, pure and mixed, and sizes, small through large, are used for service work. A variety of skills are used to expand the independence of individuals using the animals.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is clear that the dog must be trained to do a task directly related to the handler’s disability and that companionship, emotional support, and comfort do not qualify as tasks. The ADA defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.
Commonly the words “assistance” and “service” may be interchangeable but for definition within the ADA the terms are separate.
There are many organizations training these animals nationally and internationally. Training groups may use various titles for the work styles listed below, but the work descriptions should allow you to match your needs to the services offered by each. Please check out Assistance Dogs International, Guide Dogs of America, or the International Guide Dog Federation for listings.
To help those who are deaf or hard of hearing by responding to sounds such as a knock on the door, alarm clocks, and the child’s name, by alerting their human partners to these sounds. Hearing dogs work best in a non-facilitated situation; when the child can respond independently to the information provided by the dog. The hearing dog must respond and alert their partner whenever they hear a trained sound. This is sometimes not practical for a family with young children
To help those who use other tools including but not limited to: wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers, by picking up almost any dropped item, turning light switches on or off, and carrying items. “Laptop Dogs” are a smaller version of the traditional service dog with the agility to jump up on counters, retrieve items, and then to jump with the item into the owner’s lap.
Identify when a seizure (such as from epilepsy) is about to happen and alert their partner so the partner can respond appropriately.
The oldest style of service dog and the most commonly known by the general public. These dogs are trained to negotiate obstacles, overhangs, barriers, street crossings, city and country work, and public transportation to help individuals with site impairments.
As of March of 2011 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for dogs to help individuals with psychiatric or other mental disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The ADA is clear that the dog must be trained to do a task directly related to the handler’s disability and that companionship, emotional support, and comfort do not qualify as tasks. An example of a task which might be accomplished by a dog in this area, is that the dog would nudge the handler when a behavior such as body rocking, caused by anxiety, started to happen so that the handler would become aware of the behavior and then be able to control the anxiety response.
These are generally large breed dogs which should have a healthy body weight of half, or more, of the handler’s body weight. These dogs will wear harnesses specific to their work—some will be trained to help an individual balance in a standing position or to get up or down from a standing position, while others are trained to help prevent falls while the individual is walking. Some may be trained for any combination of the above. It is important to understand what each training organization considers a finished dog with this style of work, as it may or may not be the right tool for your balance needs.
Help those children who cannot assume total responsibility for a working dog, but who can benefit from the assistance a dog can give in learning important social skills. These dogs are always facilitated by the nature of their work and encourage social interaction between the child, the dog, and other individuals. This style of work is most often successful with children in the Autism spectrum.
Therapy Dogs are dogs who work with special educators, teachers, therapists, and private volunteers who visit hospitals and nursing homes, often working with physically, mentally, or emotionally disabled adults and children. They are integrated into the current educational curriculum as motivators and serve as an additional innovative teaching tool for the children. The dog is maintained by and is a permanent commitment for the teacher, volunteer, educator, or therapist. Therapists often use these dogs in their sessions to help open a line of communication, act as a calming influence, and diffuse stressful situations. These animals are not service dogs and are not given public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.