Service Dogs – Putting man’s best friend to work!

One common scene associated with our modern world today are disabled people accompanied by their service dogs. They can be seen in many cities and communities in this, and many other countries, as well. They help disabled people accomplish tasks they are unable to do for themselves, or have difficulty doing for themselves without assistance.

The first instance when dogs were specifically trained to help people came during the First World War, when German shepherds were used as ambulance and messenger dogs. Later, after the Second World War, American veterans were provided the services of such dogs, and their training followed the standards set by German training schools established to care for German veterans after WWI.

So, in today’s context, what are service dogs, and what goes into making a dog into a service dog?

What Are Service Dogs

When we think of service animals, the first thing that comes to mind are seeing-eye dogs. These are dogs who are trained to accompany blind people so they can move about safely, especially when they’re on the streets. I remember seeing them during the early days and it still seems amazing to me, after all these years, to see dogs accomplish what to me, were fairly complex tasks for animals.  

But that’s just me being ignorant of what animals, especially dogs, are capable of doing.

Service dogs are animals that are trained to handle tasks that make life easier for their owners. They are half of a team that includes their disabled handlers, that allow them to regain a measure of independence and safety.

As working animals, these dogs are not for petting. In fact, most organizations that provide this service have rules that strictly prohibit petting, because it distracts the dogs from their jobs.

Service dogs are expected to perform specific tasks to aid their disabled partners. Some of these tasks include:

  • identifying when their handlers are in trouble or in distress
  • alerting people for help is their handlers are in trouble
  • alerting their handlers when it is time to take their medications, especially dogs trained to help diabetics
  • they are trained to open doors, refrigerator, and drawers
  • they are trained to pick up items for their handlers, especially dropped items like medications or canes
  • for veterans, they are specially trained to identify symptoms of PTSD, and respond appropriately, like waking their handlers who are experiencing nightmares
  • some are also trained specifically to aid autistic patients

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees the rights of disabled persons to be accompanied by their  service dogs in public spaces. These include restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and libraries. Other laws enacted since also protect disabled people’s rights to have their service dogs accompany them in flights, and allows them to have dogs in apartments that do not normally allow pets. These are the Department of Transportation’s Air Access Act, and the Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Act.

Both laws widen the circumstances under which disabled handlers may be accompanied by their service dogs.

Therapy Dogs

In Contrast, therapy dogs are trained differently, because their tasks are different. They are trained to provide psychological or physiological therapy to people other than their handlers. These are the dogs you see at hospitals, hospice homes, schools and old age communities and nursing homes.

Unlike service dogs who are trained to focus on their jobs, therapy animals are encouraged to interact with other people. And yes, these dogs are okay to pet!

You will also see these dogs at rehab centers, group homes, and day care centers, where their main role is to provide companionship to kids and residents. They are trained extensively, and must be registered in order to participate in these programs.

Unlike service dogs, though, therapy dogs do not have the same legal status. This means they are not guaranteed access to the same places that service dogs are allowed. Often, though, institutions and establishments will consider allowing therapy dogs access on a case-by-case basis.

Looking For Training Facilities

There are no mandatory certificates or registries for service dogs. Any owner can have their own service dogs trained. They do need to meet certain requirements listed by the ADA. There are, however, organizations that provide these trainings and you can search for them easily enough online. A simple Google search for “service dog training near me” will result in organizations within your area that provide this service.  

The same process applies if you’re looking for training facilities for therapy dogs. Keep in mind, the tasks are different for these dogs. So some organizations that provide training for service dogs may not provide training for therapy dogs.

There are minimum standards for picking animals to be trained as service dogs. One is that they must be able to do certain tasks on cue, and not on their own. Other behaviors they are looking for are:

  • they must be trained not to poop or pee indoors
  • dogs should not bark or lunge at other people or other animals when in public
  • they must not ask for food
  • they must not ask for petting from other people
  • they must be calm and behaved while walking on a leash
  • they must not be sniffing people, things or intrude into people’s space

If your animal meets these criteria, then your dog may be considered for training.

Types Of Service Dogs

Gone are the days when we only have seeing-eye dogs and dogs for the deaf. Today, service dogs are trained to perform many more jobs compared to when they started using dogs for this purpose.  

These are some jobs service dogs today are trained for:

  • Guide dogs – assists the blind to get around
  • Hearing dogs – alerts hearing impaired to noises and sounds around them
  • Mobility Assistance dogs – assist wheelchair-bound patients to get certain things like the paper
  • Diabetic Alert dogs – for Diabetics, sensing changes in handler’s blood chemistry
  • Seizure Alert dogs – controversial because they are trained to sense impending seizures
  • Seizure Response dogs – trained to respond to ongoing seizures
  • Psychiatric Service dogs – usually work with people with PTSD
  • Autism Support dogs – reduces isolation, assists in social interactions, provides predictability
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) dogs – trained like Autism dogs to disrupt repetitive behavior
  • Allergy Detection dogs – paired with children and are trained to detect and alert for odors like peanuts

Serving Others

Service dogs provide invaluable service to many disabled people today. And they are making a difference, and saving lives. They give new meaning to the phrase “man’s best friend.”
The range of functions we now expect dogs to perform when trained appropriately are unimaginable compared to what we expected them to do just a generation or two ago. And it’s possible to assume that the list of jobs we have for them today will only grow as the years progress.

Serving others may be in their genes all along. And now that we’ve given our friends this opportunity to be of more help to us, we may have opened a new chapter in this relationship that goes back thousands of years. To that time when the first wolves were trained to help humans guard their herds and fields, and accidentally becoming our friends and companions through the millennia.