We all know that dogs are capable of learning and performing some pretty amazing and impressive tricks. What some people aren’t as familiar with are the services dogs are capable of learning and executing and the lives they save and enrich in doing so. Service dogs make a daily difference for those living with physical, neurological, and psychological disabilities. They allow people to live as normal a life as possible, and to do many of the things that their disabilities might prohibit them from doing without assistance. They work tirelessly, devotedly, lovingly, and all they ask in return is affection. They are canine heroes, and we are excited to highlight them in this week’s Dog Tails post.

So, what precisely IS a service dog? According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” It is important to note that service dogs are working dogs, not pets. Their main purpose is to perform assistance services for their owners that are directly related to the owner’s disability. As such, the ADA requires that service dogs be allowed access to all areas where the public is normally allowed to go. This has caused some controversy, in that some people attempt to exploit this ruling by bringing their pets places under the claim that they are service animals. But that’s a story for another blog!

Service dogs can be loosely separated into six main categories, described below. Please note that these categories do not comprise all the disabilities and tasks for which service dogs are used, but rather the most common. You can find additional information at Service Dog Central, a comprehensive site dedicated to service dogs and their owners.

Seeing eye dogSeeing Eye/Guide dogs: Perhaps the most familiar service dog, Seeing Eye dogs do exactly what their name suggests: act as someone’s eyes. They help their vision-impaired owners navigate the world around them as independently as possible. They are trained to recognize obstacles and dangers, such as a “Do Not Walk” sign or a curb, or an oncoming car. They know to stop in place to prevent their owners from walking further, or to pull their owners away from a dangerous situation, among other tasks. A Seeing Eye dog needs to be the model of calm and alertness in all situations, and have an unshakeable focus. They must be large enough to guide in a harness and small enough to be easily controlled and fit comfortably in tight spaces like under restaurant tables and on public transit. The most commonly used breeds are Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, and German shepherds, due to their temperaments, intelligence, and size.

Hearing dogs: Hearing dogs are trained to assist people with hearing impairments, essentially being their ears and alerting them to important audible cues in their daily lives. They can alert their owners to ringing doorbells, knocks on doors, phones, smoke alarms, crying babies, honking cars, sirens, and much more. Hearing dogs can be trained to assist inside and/or outside the home; it is up to the owner where they would like the dog to assist them. Any breed of dog can become a hearing dog, but preferred traits include excellent temperament, desire to work, and reactivity to sound.

Mobility service dogMobility dogs: Mobility dogs provide assistance to owners whose mobility is limited due to a physical or neurological disability, such as amputations, Cerebral Palsy, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and paralysis, Fibromyalgia, and many others. For owners who are able to walk but have mobility impairments, service dogs can provide help with stability and balance while walking via a special harness that helps them act as a counterbalance. For owners that are wheelchair-bound, and even those who aren’t, mobility dogs can assist with daily tasks and chores such as retrieving dropped items, flipping light switches, opening and closing doors, removing clothing, fetching a cane or walker, tugging a laundry basket, retrieving household tools or items, and even paying for items at a store by handing the checkout associate their owner’s card or wallet! Like Seeing Eye dogs, Labs, Goldens, and German shepherds are common breeds used as mobility dogs, due to their temperament, biddability, and work drive.

Medical alert dogSeizure alert/response dogs: One of the newer types of service dogs, seizure alert/response dogs are trained to recognize the signs of an oncoming seizure and attend to their owner during and after seizure activity. According to Service Dog Central, seizure alert dogs are generally able to pick up on an impending seizure 10-20 minutes before the seizure actually hits, and are able to alert their owner, allowing the owner to take medication, get to a safe place, alert friends or family, and/or call for help. Seizure response dogs are specifically trained to assist their owners during and after their seizures, performing such tasks as rolling the person over, clearing vomit from the owner’s mouth, physically blocking the owner from harmful obstacles such as stairs or guiding to a safe place, running for help, and even calling 911 via speed dial or a special K9 phone. Most dogs that assist people with seizure disorders have been trained as both alert and response dogs.

Autism service dogs: Another newer type of service dog, Autism service dogs assist those on the Autism spectrum by alerting them to sensory cues that they may miss due to the differences in the way and speed with which they process external sensory stimuli. For many people on the Autism spectrum, responding to multiple stimuli at the same time is difficult.  This can lead to delays in acting on crucial signals such as a fire alarm, traffic light color, or oncoming car. By the time the owner is able to register the signal and process how to handle it, they may be in imminent danger. Service dogs help here by alerting the owner and processing and responding to the signal for them, such as pulling them out of an intersection or guiding them out of the house during a fire.

Medical service dogAutism service dogs may assist their owners during periods of over-stimulation by guiding them out of an excessively stimulating situation or finding a specific caregiver or person to attend to the owner. They can also recognize and respond when their owner is performing certain repetitive behaviors. Many of these behaviors are physically harmless and even beneficial, such as hand-flapping; others, such as head-banging, are considered self-injurious behaviors and, as the name suggests, can be harmful. In these cases, the dog can alert the owner to the behavior to help break the cycle, or in the case of children, alert a parent or caregiver who can intervene if needed. The dog may also provide comfort and have a calming effect by curling up with their owner and applying pressure or retrieving a weighted blanket during a period of over-stimulation, which may help restore the owner to a calmer state.

Psychiatric Service dogs: Psychiatric service dogs have become the subject of a heated debate, as many are not sure they should be separated from Emotional Support or Comfort dogs and covered by the ADA. Psychiatric support dogs are dogs that are trained to provide services and perform tasks for those so impaired by their psychiatric illnesses as to not be able to successfully function on a minimal level. Having chronic depression or anxiety does not qualify as a psychiatric disability; examples of what would qualify are having severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting in disorienting and dangerous flashbacks; having schizophrenia or another dissociative disorder that can cause confusion, hallucinations, and other shifts in consciousness; or having such severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that it becomes harmful to oneself or others. In some cases, canine assistance is needed due to a side-effect such as dizziness, excessive fatigue, and extreme weakness or nausea, as a result of the medication the person takes to manage their psychiatric illness.

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to assist with each individual’s unique psychiatric disability, but some tasks can include bracing an owner who is dizzy from medication, waking the owner if their medication induces sleep so heavy as to preclude them from hearing an alarm, searching rooms and turning on lights for owners with phobias or PTSD, blocking owners in a dissociative state from harming themselves or others, leading a disoriented owner to a safe place or person, and more. For more information on psychiatric service dogs – both what they do and how they differ from emotional support dogs – check out Service Dog Central’s great article and keep an eye out in upcoming weeks for a Dog Tails post on this debate.

If you or someone you know could benefit from the assistance of a service dog, here are some helpful links for more information:

Service Dog Central

Delta Society

American Dog Trainers Network Service and Assistance Dogs Directory

Revised ADA Service Animal Guidelines

Photo credits (top to bottom):

Lisa Norwood via Flickr – Image is cropped.

Jeremy Keith via Flickr

Scot Campbell via Flickr

Martha Soukup via Flickr

Dee & Tula via Flickr