Most people think of dogs as pets. The bond between a dog and its master is very close. But some dogs also do important tasks. They help people in a number of different ways.
Dogs have been used to guard and protect the home for thousands of years. Today, guard dogs assist the military and police. Farmers and ranchers have long depended on herding dogs to round up and protect their sheep and cattle. But dogs also help people with disabilities live more independent lives. These animals are known as service dogs.
A service dog is specially trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability.
Types of Service Dogs
There are many different kinds of service dogs. Guide dogs (sometimes called seeing-eye dogs) help blind people move safely from place to place. They guide their masters around obstacles and through crowds. They help them cross busy streets.
Guide dogs not only follow orders, they also learn to disobey commands that might bring their master into danger. These dogs become accustomed to wearing special harnesses that are designed to allow the owner to feel the dog's movements.
Hearing dogs alert deaf or hearing-impaired persons to the presence of people or to important sounds. They can signal to their owners when a telephone, doorbell, or alarm is making a sound.
Medical alert dogs assist people with chronic conditions. For example, some medical alert dogs are trained to detect when a person with epilepsy might be about to have a seizure. Others are taught to recognize when a person with diabetes is having an episode resulting from low blood sugar.
These dogs can get help for their owner by pushing an alarm button or summoning someone else in the house or nearby. Some medical alert dogs assist people with food allergies by sniffing out harmful ingredients, such as peanuts, in foods.
Mobility assistance dogs help people who use wheelchairs or have limited ability to move about. They might help pull a wheelchair or retrieve objects that are out of reach. They can push doors to open or turn lights on or off. These dogs can help people with balance issues by serving as a steadying brace.
Psychiatric service dogs aid people who suffer from anxiety, stress, or other mental health conditions. They give help and comfort in a variety of potentially scary situations. They might guide their owner through crowds or provide a reassuring presence in unfamiliar surroundings.
Psychiatric service dogs can interrupt and distract a person from repetitive or destructive behaviors. They can even learn to recognize the signs of an oncoming anxiety attack and retrieve medications.
Characteristics of Service Dogs
Not every dog has the special qualities needed to be a service dog. Dogs chosen for this kind of work must have the right temperament and personality. Service dogs should be calm and well-mannered.
They must be adaptable to many different surroundings and situations. They have to be alert. They must be capable of ignoring distractions. And these dogs should be intelligent and able to learn complex tasks.
The breeds most commonly chosen as service dogs are the Labrador retriever, the golden retriever, and the German shepherd. But dogs of other breeds and sizes are also used as service dogs. While smaller dogs might not be suitable as guide dogs or mobility assistance dogs, they can be used as medical alert or hearing dogs.
Service Dog Training
Service dogs go through extensive training to help disabled people. There are many professional service dog organizations that train service dogs. It usually takes about six months to a year to train a dog.
Training typically begins in puppyhood. Dogs are taught core obedience commands, such as sit, stay, or fetch. They are trained to become accustomed to a variety of public settings -restaurants, shopping malls, or city streets, for example.
Dogs are also trained to do specific tasks depending on the type of service they will be expected to perform. Dogs are trained using praise, food treats, or clickers. (A clicker is a handheld device with a button that makes a clicking noise when pressed.)
When a dog and its new owner are matched, they take special classes to learn how to work together as a team. These classes usually last about a month. The United States has no specific training requirements for a service dog. Individuals with disabilities can train a service dog themselves, but it is recommended that a professional service dog trainer teach a dog.
On the Job
Service dogs are permitted by law to go into public places where other dogs are not allowed. They can go into stores, restaurants, theaters, and workplaces. Service dogs can accompany their owners on public transportation, such as buses, trains, and airplanes.
While in a public place, the dog must be under the control of its owner at all times. The dog must wear a harness or leash. Some owners may have disabilities that prevent them from using these devices. They must be able to control the dog using voice or signal commands.
If you see a service dog, remember that they are working animals with an important job to do. Do not pet them without their handler's permission. Do not feed them or try to distract them. If you are walking a dog and see a service dog approaching, keep your dog away from the service animal.
History of Service Dogs
The first service dogs were guide dogs for the blind. Evidence of dogs guiding the blind goes back hundreds of years. A wall painting dating to AD 79 showing a blind man being led by a dog was uncovered during excavations of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. A Chinese scroll painting from the 1200s depicts a similar scene. Over the following centuries, references to guide dogs appeared in literature and paintings all over the world.
The history of the modern service dog begins during World War I (1914-18). During the war, many soldiers were blinded by chemical weapons. Formal training of dogs to aid these veterans began in Germany in 1916.
Training schools for guide dogs opened after the war. By 1927, there were more than 4,000 guide dogs in Germany. The first school for guide dogs in the United States -the Seeing Eye- opened in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1929.
After World War II (1939-45), demand grew for dogs to help people with various kinds of disabilities. Over the following decades, schools and organizations dedicated to training service dogs opened in countries around the world.
Today, there are approximately 500,000 service dogs in the United States. Service dogs have helped countless people with physical or mental disabilities meet the challenges of daily life. To their owners, service dogs provide security, greater independence, and loyal companionship.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.