What does an assistance dog do? An assistance dog ― or, service dog ― is defined as a dog specifically trained to perform tasks for an individual who may otherwise have trouble performing these tasks. In other words, they’re meant to help out their human. Their skills and training are paired with specific types of disabilities, and they learn to work together with their handler to let a happy cooperation flourish. It’s all about teamwork.
A physical assistance dog
Dogs who assist physically disabled humans have a varied job. A mobility assistance dog will offer steady support for their human to lean on if necessary, or assist someone in a wheelchair. Mobility here refers to any condition that restricts a person’s movement, to the degree of not being able to fully function on their own. People with Parkinson’s disease, for instance, may have use of a mobility assistance dog. While walking, the dog will, among other things, lean against the person and help keep them steady. These assistance dogs will wear a brace, sturdy and easy to hold and lean on.
The most recognizable type of assistance dog is perhaps a guide dog, or seeing-eye dog. The working relationship between a guide dog and their handler can be compared to that of a navigator and a pilot. The human knows how to get from one place to another, but the dog must navigate to make sure they get there safely. Since a dog can’t perceive colors relevant to street signs and lights, for example, they can only do so much. The dog and their human must practice together before going out into the world. Once they have it down, their teamwork can be near-flawless. Guide dogs have been around since the fifteen-hundreds, so this cooperation has been known for some time.
Those with hearing loss can also be helped greatly by assistance dogs. These are also known as signal dogs. Their job is to alert their owner of sounds like doorbells, smoke alarms, and telephones. Out in the world, this would also apply to sirens, horns, and perhaps someone calling the human’s name. Alerting could mean nudging, or tugging on a sleeve, sometimes even leading the person away from danger.
Assistance dogs for many jobs outside of the strictly physical are becoming much more common. One of them is the medical response dog, whose job it is to help out their human with things like medication. If the dog detects that their diabetic human’s blood sugar is too high or low, for instance, they’ll make sure to nudge a reminder. Oftentimes, medical response dogs are trained to alert to these things before an emergency occurs.
Seizure response dogs help out people with conditions like epilepsy. In case of a seizure, this assistance dog can be trained to do a multitude of things. They can get help, by alerting nearby humans and leading them to their handler. They can use their bodyweight to keep the person in a certain position during a seizure, or try to gently “wake them up” once the seizure is over. They can retrieve a phone or medication, and lead their human away from an unsafe situation or location. They can help their human get back up, if they need it. Sometimes, it can be enough to rest against the person, to calm them if need be.
Emotional and psychiatric support dogs
Psychiatric service dogs focus on conditions that are psychiatric in nature, often referred to as emotional support dogs. Their paired human may have disabilities or conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Here, the dog’s job ― like with all assistance dogs ― is to make life a little easier for their human. Sometimes, this can be something as simple as leaning on them, to provide calming, soothing pressure and kisses. Other times, it can be attempting to prevent them from harming themselves. It can be providing environmental assessment (in the case of hallucinations), or guiding their human away from stressful situations. Oftentimes, it’s something as simple as climbing up onto the lap of their human, the moment they sense an oncoming episode or panic attack. Simple, but can make a world of difference.
In those with autism, an assistance dog can help them gain independence, and the ability to perform daily life tasks just as anyone else. When it concerns a child with autism, however, the dog heeds the commands of the parents or caregivers, not those of the child.
Therapy dogs offer emotional support much the same way, but are used differently. Their main job isn’t to cheer up their handler, but rather help cheer up others. This often applies to scenarios and places like hospitals and therapists’ offices. They generally don’t have the same rights to go where dogs usually aren’t allowed, unlike other assistance dogs. Instead, they are intended to stay within the context of a medical facility.
Most breeds make for good assistance dogs, but some are better suited for certain areas. A mobility assistance dog, for instance, needs to be on the larger side. They need to be strong and heavy, to be able to physically support their human and help them with their needs. Breeds like the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, Border Collie, Pit Bull, and Bernese Mountain Dog are good candidates.
Some mixed breeds are trained to be assistance dogs, but it’s more common to use purebred dogs. This is because assistance dogs need a certain type of temperament, as well as certain traits and physique. With mixed breeds, this can be hard to determine, as you never quite know what you’ll end up with.
The Lab is overall common within the assistance dog field, along with the Golden Retriever and German Shepherd. Their size, intelligence, temperament, and willingness to work are all important traits in an assistance dog. A lesser-known breed is the Standard Poodle, which may seem like an odd choice, at first. But Poodles are among the most intelligent of dog breeds, highly trainable, and the size of a Standard also works in their favor. Not to mention, their coat is hypoallergenic, which is good for allergy sufferers, both in private and in public.
When it comes to emotional support, size isn’t an issue ― a Pomeranian will do just as good a job supporting you as a Mastiff or a Doberman. Sometimes, smaller size may even be a good thing, since it’s easier to scoop up a smaller dog into your arms. Trainability, friendliness, and desire to work ― all vital traits in an assistance dog.
Dogs are, in themselves, a support simply by existing. They make us happy, they help us, they make us feel a little better when everything else sucks. It can be as simple as getting outside for some fresh air and exercise. Something like that can make a world of difference for someone who is depressed, for instance, or has trouble moving around or going out on their own. Emotional support animals in particular tend to elicit mixed reactions; some think they’re just an excuse to have your dog inside where it doesn’t belong. Others are convinced that the whole concept of it is the result of a younger, oversensitive generation.
But assistance dogs, even those for emotional or psychiatrically related support, have been around for a lot longer than that. Dogs offering physical assistance have been officially trained for over a hundred years, while those for emotional and psychiatric support have been around even longer. They just didn’t have this kind of “label”, until now. Assistance dogs are the unsung heroes of millions of people around the world. They improve quality of life, and help provide a sense of independence to those who need it. And if an emergency should arise, they could actually make the difference between life and death.