When most of us think of a service dog, the first thing that comes to mind is a guide dog for a blind person. This article will show there are a variety of service dogs that fulfill a large number of jobs on a daily basis.

According to the ADA, “Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities…. Service animals are working animals, not pets.” (http://www.ada.gov/svcanimb.htm)

In most cases, service animals that frequent public places are beautiful well-groomed animals that are often irresistible to the dog or animal lover. In fact, it is because these animals frequent public places that they are so well groomed. Many people want to touch/pet them and often try to get the animal’s attention. When a disabled person is in public with their service animal, it is important not to distract the animal as in most cases, the individual depends upon the animal for assistance. A distracted service animal not only isn’t paying attention to what its owner needs, it can actually cause danger for the disabled person such as a trip and fall or rolling into the street. In fact, in many states, it is illegal to interfere with the use of a service animal by harassing or obstructing the person or animal. This is punishable by imprisonment, fine or both.

As these are working animals, their sole responsibility is to assist their disabled human. For most working animals, their job is 24/7, seven days a week with no vacation, sick days or time off. The types of roles service animals play depend upon the needs of the individual disabled person. These include assistance as:

  • Guide dog for a person with partial or full vision loss.
  • Mobility dogs assist disabled people with daily activities including, but not limited to walking, retrieving items, opening/closing doors, pushing buttons on an elevator, turning lights on and off. If the person is in a wheelchair, the animal may pull (including long distances, up/down hills) the wheelchair, slow the wheelchair down, lay down in front of the wheelchair to keep the person from rolling into the street, as well as guiding the wheelchair and user through areas of heavy pedestrian traffic.
  • Hearing alert animals alert their owner to specific noises such as doorbell and telephone.
  • Seizure alert/seizure response animals alert and respond to seizures such as those that occur for people with epilepsy. In many cases, the animal responds to oncoming seizures and can alert the individual to a seizure before it happens allowing the person time to take prescribed medication or other necessary steps. In the event the seizure happens, the dog may push a medical alert panic button, get help by other means and/or stay with the person until help is available.
  • Medical alert/medical response animals alert and respond to such medical conditions as diabetes, heart attack/stroke, panic/anxiety attacks, Parkinson’s disease and post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Autism service dogs alert to and help keep certain behaviors associated with autism to a minimum.
  • Psychiatric service animals help their owners by disrupting delusional episodes, calming severe panic attacks and even physically keeping their owner from harming themselves.

While there are specific laws regarding accommodation for disabled persons in public and commercial facilities (see Titles II and III of ADA:http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/ADAregs2010.htm), training for service animals varies and depends upon the needs of the disabled individual. It is recommended that a service dog have, at the very least, certification as AKC’s Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) (http://www.akc.org/events/cgc/program.cfm) or similar training program that teaches the service dog good manners at both home and in public (most dogs would benefit from this type of training).

A variety of organizations offer assistance on obtaining a service animal based on particular disabilities. These include:

As these organizations are dependent on donations and volunteer services, contact a local chapter for more information on how you can help.

Science and technology are moving so fast today that more and more people who used to die in accidents or of heart attacks, strokes and other diseases can now live many years with these disabilities and diseases. Service animals play a significant part in helping the increasing numbers of disabled in our society to reintegrate fully and live long fruitful lives. So, if you are an able-bodied person who encounters service animals, remember these simple guidelines. If you are a new or long-term disabled person who might benefit from a service animal in your life, please use the resources above.