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The Many Ways That Dogs Assist People

You’ve probably seen a service dog and handler when out and about. But how much do you really know about assistance dogs? Since it’s International Assistance Dog Week (August 4–10, 2019), we thought we’d salute all of the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs who make life better and easier for their human partners.

What is an assistance dog?

Many people are familiar with guide dogs or Seeing Eye® dogs, those who help people with vision loss. However, there are other categories of assistance dogs working today.

According to Assistance Dogs International, “assistance dog” is a generic term for guide, hearing or service dogs who are specifically trained to help people with disabilities cope with their disability and lead a more independent life. These dogs qualify as “service animals” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) since they are specifically trained to perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability. And because service dogs are covered by the ADA, their human partners can legally take them into any place where the public is allowed, even if pets are not normally permitted — like hospitals, restaurants and movie theatres.

According to the ADA National Network, the following are examples of dogs who fit the ADA’s definition of service animal and how they assist disabled persons:

  • A guide dog or Seeing Eye dog is an expertly trained dog who assists someone who is blind or visually impaired. Guide dogs lead their handlers around physical obstacles, across streets and into and out of doorways, elevators and stairways.
  • A hearing or signal dog is one that has been trained to alert a person with significant hearing loss or who is deaf to specific sounds, such as doorbells, knocks on the door, sirens, another individual, buzzing timers, or smoke, fire and clock alarms.
  • A service dog works for individuals with disabilities other than blindness or deafness. These dogs go through as much as two years of training before being partnered with someone with a disability. Service dogs perform a wide variety of tasks, including retrieving and carrying items, pushing buttons, pulling wheelchairs, opening doors and drawers, and much more.
  • A psychiatric service dog is one that has been trained to do tasks that help disabled individuals cope with and reduce the effects of psychiatric episodes. Tasks may include reminding the person to take medication, turning on lights for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or interrupting self-mutilation by someone with a dissociative identity disorder.
  • A sensory signal or social signal dog is specially trained to assist someone with autism. The dog alerts his or her human partner to distracting repetitive movements (e.g., hand flapping) common among those with autism.
  • A seizure response dog is a carefully trained dog who helps an individual with a seizure disorder. How the dog assists his or her handler varies according to what the person needs. A dog may go for help or may stand guard over the individual during a seizure. A few dogs have learned to predict a seizure and alert their handler in advance.

Other support or therapy dogs are common, too

Many people confuse service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals. While all of these dogs help their owners and other people in some way, their training, responsibilities and access to public areas are very different.

A therapy dog is typically a pet who provides comfort and affection to people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, schools, libraries and even disaster areas. These dogs love people, are extremely tolerant of people and situations, and are comfortable in any setting. Many therapy dog owners belong to a therapy dog registration and/or certification organization, such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Pet Partners and HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. These organizations provide a wide range of services to therapy teams, including educational information, screening of volunteers and dogs, certification, registration, continuing education and even insurance.

An emotional support dog provides only emotional support to a person with a mental health condition or emotional disorder. These dogs provide comfort to their owners but don’t perform any tasks to alleviate a disability.

A facility dog is a trained dog who partners with a “facilitator,” usually a working professional such as a counselor, psychologist, rehabilitation therapist, victim advocate, forensic interviewer or assistant district attorney. Facility dogs can be found working in courthouses, schools and special education classrooms, medical rehabilitation facilities, assisted living facilities and psychiatric programs. The most important services a facility dog provides are motivation, calm support and friendship, distraction from negative feelings and even improved mobility.

No wonder they’re considered our best friends

Whether a service dog, working dog, therapy dog or family pet, dogs add so much to our lives. This week, let’s celebrate the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs — and the therapy, emotional support and facility dogs — who make life easier and more comfortable for those among us who need them.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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