What is a Service Dog and How Do They Help?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 | 

What is a service dog

We’ve all seen them, practically everywhere. In parks, shopping centers, grocery stores, the library and even church. Wearing the very official looking vests and a stiff collared handle, they shut out the rest of the world as they focus their full attention on their companions. Always helping, always serving, we can only be describing one thing – The beloved service dog. Often described as a miracle with four legs and a tail, these special animals help their human owners with critical, everyday life tasks. Without these incredibly capable dogs, people with various limitations or impairments would not be able to successfully function on a daily basis.

In this blog, we will take a look at exactly what a service dog is, what kinds of breeds make the best ones and other interesting facts about these very special animals.

What is A Service Dog?

A service dog is an assistance animal, that has received very specialized training in order to help people with certain kinds of physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities. The first use of a dog in such a fashion took place initially in Europe during World War 1. 

Service dogs are normally outfitted with a special vest, backpack or bandana to help identify them and their role with people. Most of these specialized dogs also have a tall handle, attached to their collar or vest that allows their handlers to hang onto them.

Service Dog Breeds

While in theory any dog can be trained to be a service animal, recent studies have indicated that certain types of dog breeds are the most successful. The most common breeds identified to be the most successfully trained are Labradors, Golden Retrievers and German Shepards. These types of dogs are very good at tasks requiring physical strength and stability. Small breeds can also be very good candidates, but tend to be used as medical alert dogs or similar duties. Ultimately, there are certain breeds best suited for certain tasks due to their size and weight.

Types of Service Dogs

Service dogs can be a great help to disabled people in a wide variety of ways. There are many types of service dogs, but here are just some of the ways these animals are heroes to their human owners.

Guide Dogs

A guide dog is a service dog that leads blind and visually impaired people.  Guide dogs help their owners navigate safely around obstacles, through crowds, stopping at curbs and stairs, and sometimes can even find a limited number of objects such as chairs, doors, and elevators.

Hearing Dogs

A canine trained as a hearing dog alerts people to sounds that are necessary for everyday safety and independence.  Hearing dogs make physical contact and lead their person to the source of sound, such as the front door when the doorbell rings.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

These service dogs assist their handles with psychiatric disabilities such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. It’s important to note that an emotional support animal (ESA) and therapy dogs are NOT the same as a psychiatric service dog.

Medical Service Dogs

A medical service dog is able to detect and alert their person of dangerous physiological changes such as blood pressure, the onset of a seizure, and shifting insulin levels.  They can also assist with mobility issues.

Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog

It is important to note that a therapy dog is NOT a type of service dog.  There is often confusion between them, but the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog is quite significant. A therapy dog is trained to provide emotional support or encouragement to people, while a service dog is specially tasked with helping impaired people. Therapy dogs for example are often seen in hospitals or nursing homes, being taken from room to room to visit with patients.  Service dogs are not used for such activities.

Training a Service Dog

Not every pup can successfully become a service dog. Even dogs who start the rigorous training program can fail out if trainers detect any behavior or issue with the animal that could impede it from doing its job. For the most part, dogs who become great service animals all have certain personality traits in common, such as being alert, focused, eager to learn and not easily distracted.

Service dogs are usually custom trained with a specific person in mind, as each person’s particular disability is unique. People who train service animals are themselves highly trained in order to teach their four legged students how to be successful out in the world. The time needed to train a service dog can be anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the owner’s need. The training process can also be pricey, as it’s not unheard of to have the cost of training a service dog be in excess of $25,000. 

Legal Protection & Fake Service Dogs

The 1993 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) granted strong protections to handicapped people with service dogs. In essence, a service dog is allowed anywhere their human companions choose to go. There have been instances since the ADA act’s passage where people with service dogs were denied access somewhere because of the dog’s presence. These bad decisions are met with incredibly harsh fines and penalties as this action is considered discrimination. However, there have also been people who have tried to pass off a regular dog as a service animal by putting a vest or other official garments on the dog. This is illegal and is considered a federal crime. Violators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Service dogs are very special animals and can radically change a disabled person’s life for the better. It takes extensive training to teach each type of service dog and the ability to match the right dog to the correct person in order to make the program a success. Not every dog can be service animal, but for those who make it through the intensive training, they soon become a beloved member of the disabled person’s family. The old adage that a dog is man’s best friend is especially true with these special animals.