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A Service Dog Can Do That?

Service Dogs – Different Types and What They Do

Many people are surprised to learn there are more than a dozen different specializations for service dogs. There are diabetic alert dogs, severe allergy alert dogs, visual assistance dogs, hearing dogs for the deaf, wheelchair assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs, brace/mobility support dogs, medical alert dogs, seizure assistance dogs, and dogs for autism, PTSD and more.*

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), a dog is considered a “service dog” if it has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” A disability is a “mental or physical condition which substantially limits a major life activity.” Examples include the following:

  • Caring for one’s self
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Working

Other disabilities may not be visible:

  • Deafness
  • Epilepsy
  • Psychiatric conditions
  • Diabetes

To be considered a service dog, the dog must be trained to perform tasks directly related to the person’s disability. Some service dogs perform two or more functions for their disabled handler, such as a brace / mobility support dog and a seizure assistance dog. There isn’t a clear way to classify all types of service dogs, nor is classification particularly important under the ADA as long as the dog is a service dog. The dog’s type, function, title, or classification is usually left up to the dog’s handler. The following are some ways in which service dogs can assist their handlers.

Allergy Alert: The service dog can alert its handler to life-threatening allergens that may be in the area, especially tree nuts, gluten, or shellfish.

Autism Assistance: The service dog can help to calm or ground an individual who has autism via tactile or deep pressure stimulation. The dog may also assist in teaching life skills, maintaining boundaries, or finding a “runner.”

Mobility Support /Wheelchair Assistance: A brace/mobility support dog works to provide bracing or counterbalancing to a partner who has balance issues due to a disability. Many brace/mobility support dogs also retrieve, open/close doors, or do other tasks to assist in day-to- day life or in an emergency. Dogs may also assist their partner by retrieving dropped objects, opening doors, retrieving the phone, helping with transfers, or doing anything else their partner may need.

Diabetic Alert: These dogs can alert their handler to dangerous or potentially deadly blood sugar highs and lows. Many dogs are trained to call 911 on a special K-9 Alert phone if their partner cannot be roused.

Hearing Assistance: Hearing assistance dogs can alert their deaf handler to environmental sounds, including, but not limited to, alarms, doorbells, knocking, phones, cars, or their name.

Medical Alert: These dogs are trained to alert their handler to dangerous physiologic changes. such as spikes or drops in blood pressure, hormone levels or some other parameter or to recognized an identifiable symptom.

Psychiatric Service: Psychiatric service dogs assist their handler with a psychiatric disability such as anxiety, depression or PTSD via specific trained tasks.

Seizure Response: These dogs respond to their handler’s seizures via trained tasks. The dog may retrieve medication, utilize deep pressure stimulation to end a seizure early, fetch a nearby person to help or call 911.

Visual Assistance: Also know as guide dogs, these animals help their visually impaired or blind handler to navigate the world.

Kimberly Brenowitz is the Master Trainer with Animals Deserve Better, Inc., and Paws for Life in Marietta, GA. She can be reached at adb@animalsdeservebetter.com.


*Editor’s Note: Although the article above does not specifically address service animals and sleep disorders, professionally trained service animals have been reported to be able to assist people with IH, narcolepsy and related disorders. For example, a service animal may be trained to wake their owner in response to an alarm, or wake them if they are falling asleep in public. It’s possible a service animal may make sure that their owner gets to a safe place when they are overwhelmed with sleep, and helps with other tasks. Service animals can also offer comfort and calm anxiety. Of course, owning and caring for any animal is a major commitment and expense. Thorough research and careful thought on the advantages, challenges, costs and responsibilities of owning a service animal is essential.

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Service and Therapy Animals — Part 1: Getting Started

We begin this three-part series with a basic overview of the different types of service, emotional support and therapy animals.

therapydogSo, you’re thinking about getting, or someone has recommended that you get, a service dog, therapy animal, or emotional support animal (ESA). Or perhaps you have reached the decision that you need a service animal to help with your disability. Whether you self-train your animal, work with a professional trainer, or obtain an animal that has already been trained, ask a million questions to make sure that you have all the information you need. Getting an animal is at least a 10-year commitment for you and a lifetime commitment for your animal.  There are differences among the three main types of “working” animals. The following information will help you distinguish among these three types.

  • A service dog (can also be a miniature horse with some stipulations) is any dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability that they cannot do for themselves because of their disability. There are many types of service dogs and many different types of tasks that they might be asked to perform. A service dog does not have to be tested, registered, or insured and has access to most places where the general public is allowed.
  • A therapy dog (or other therapy animal) is tested, registered, and insured to go with its owner to visit facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, and to participate in reading-to-children programs. These animals are only permitted where they have been invited, and permission has to be obtained from the organization the animals are visiting. In addition, documentation of training of the animal by a reputable organization must be provided to the organization.
  • An ESA is a dog or other common domestic animal that provides therapeutic support to a disabled or elderly owner through companionship, nonjudgmental positive affection, and a focus in life. If a doctor determines that a person with a disabling mental illness would benefit from the companionship of an ESA, the doctor writes a letter supporting the person’s request to keep the ESA in “No Pet” housing or to travel with the ESA in the cabin of an aircraft. ESAs are not task-trained service animals. ESAs do not have to be tested, registered, or insured, but people who have an ESA require a letter from a doctor stating their need.

Only a judge can truly determine whether a person is legally disabled. Should the case arise in which a person with a service animal is brought to task, that person must be able to show that they are indeed disabled and that their service animal performs tasks to help with their disability—tasks that the person cannot do.

To begin, you should discuss getting a service dog or with your medical caregivers and think about your living arrangements and whether you have the financial resources to have a service dog. To find a service dog program or trainer, you can begin your search on the Internet, but remember, just because the program or trainer appears on a list on the Internet, it does not mean that the program or trainer is qualified. You still need to do more research.

Kimberly Brenowitz is a volunteer with Animals Deserve Better, Inc., and Paws for Life in Marietta GA. She can be reached at adb@animalsdeservebetter.com.

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