Service dogs are highly trained canines that assist people with disabilities. These animals are trained to aid their handlers in numerous ways, depending on their disability. Service dogs are a vital part of many disabled people’s lives, and they provide them with the assistance they need to function in the world around them. In this article, we will discuss the different types of disabilities that may qualify for a service dog and what responsibilities come with owning one.
What is a Service Dog?
A service dog is any breed of dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks to help their disabled handler live their life more easily in a world filled with barriers for disabled people. Service dogs are trained by professionals or their handlers to maximize their handlers’ enjoyment, safety, and comfort and minimize possible accidents or episodes. It is important to note that service dogs are not pets, and they are not owned solely for their owners’ enjoyment. They are owned by handlers to perform a specific job.
Who Qualifies for a Service Dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as a physical and/or mental condition that prevents the sufferer from living a “normal” life in the same way as a non-disabled person. There are many types of disabilities that can qualify for a service dog. These include physical or mobility disabilities, sensory disabilities, mental or psychiatric disabilities, and various other medical disabilities.
1. Physical Disabilities
People with physical disabilities, also known as mobility disabilities, may need assistance with everyday tasks due to their condition. Service dogs can help provide physical assistance to handlers with physical disabilities so they can more easily and comfortably navigate their daily lives. Some specific examples of physical disabilities that can benefit from the use of a service dog include:
· A wheelchair user may have a service dog that switches lights on and off, opens doors for them, presses elevator buttons for them, or reaches things they cannot.
· A person suffering from chronic dizziness, muscle weakness, or balance issues may use a service dog for physical support when they are walking around or using the stairs.
· A person who has had major surgery or a limb amputation may use a service dog to steady them in their rehabilitation period or while they are getting used to a new prosthetic.
2. Sensory Disabilities
Sensory disabilities are those that affect a person’s ability to hear, see or feel. Service dogs can assist those with sensory disabilities in a number of ways. This includes:
· Someone who has impaired sight, either partially or completely, may use a seeing eye dog also known as a guide dog to help them more easily navigate through the world around them. These dogs are literally trained to be their handlers’ “eyes” and are trusted almost implicitly to keep them safe from bodily harm.
· A person who is hearing impaired either partially or completely may use a service dog. These dogs are trained to alert their handler when there is noise around them or someone is trying to get their attention.
3. Mental Disabilities
Mental, psychiatric, or psychological disabilities can also benefit from using a service dog as part of their treatment plan. These service dogs perform tasks that are specific to the mental health disability their handler suffers from. Some examples include:
· Someone who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may benefit from a service dog that acts as a confidence-building companion and a physical boundary setter when the handler is out in public.
· People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may use service dogs to help them stay grounded in the present and avoid any emotional or cognitive triggers. Many veterans use service dogs in this way if they struggle with life after war.
· People who suffer from panic and anxiety attacks may use a service dog that is trained to alert them when they sense an attack coming on. The dog can alert their handler for them to sit down in a quiet place so the attack can pass safely and comfort them during the process.
4. Medical Disabilities
Medical disabilities, also known as non-mobility related disabilities, can also benefit from the aid of a service dog. Medical service dogs are trained for specific medical conditions that assist their handler in managing their condition. Some examples include:
· People with diabetes mellitus may use service dogs to detect when their blood sugar levels are low. The service dog can smell low or high blood sugar and will indicate to their owner that they need to sit down and test their sugar levels. This task ensures the person with diabetes does not enter glycemic shock.
· People who suffer from severe, life-threatening food allergies may use service dogs to detect certain allergens in their food.
· People who suffer from severe asthma may use service dogs to alert them when their breathing patterns change and to use their inhaler.
· People with epilepsy commonly use service dogs to sense when a seizure is about to happen. The service dog will alert the owner accordingly, and the owner will then lay down in a safe, clear space. The service dog will usually lay near the owner or directly on their chest to protect them and perform deep pressure massages. Alternatively, the service dog may be trained to go look for help.
Responsibilities of Owning a Service Dog
Service dogs are a lot of responsibility and work for a handler. If the handler cannot take proper care of the service dog, then having the service dog is actually doing a “disservice” to their disability. To properly care for a service dog, a handler has to:
· Be able to financially afford food for the dog.
· Reliably perform daily care tasks like feeding, cleaning up after the dog, and grooming.
· Be able to afford yearly vet visits and vaccinations.
Legal Issues on the Use of Service Dogs
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a very loose definition of disability so as to not alienate any disability due to constrictive wording. The definition is simple: if something about your physical or mental state interferes with your ‘normal’ functioning in life, then it can be counted as a disability. It is important to note that service dogs are protected under the ADA. This means that those who need them are entitled to bring them into public places where dogs are normally not allowed. However, the handler must have documentation to support that they need the service animal for assistance.
Service dogs are highly trained canines that assist people with disabilities. They are trained to aid their handler in numerous ways, depending on their disability. Service dogs are a vital part of many disabled people’s lives, and they provide them with the assistance they need to function in the world around them. It is important to note that owning a service dog is not for everyone. However, if you think you would benefit from a service dog, discuss it with your doctor or licensed medical professional to determine if owning one would improve your quality of life.