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What Is a Service Dog?
A service dog is a specially trained animal that provides aid and certain services for someone with special needs, disabilities, or mental illness. Service dogs are not pets; they are working animals that must operate within guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Service dogs help give independence to those with mental health issues or physical impairments. They can help guide people who are blind, alert a person to allergies or medical issues, or provide support for people with autism. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are technically not service dogs—their sole responsibility is to provide general comfort to owners, and they usually don’t have any specific training to address medical needs.
What Are the Most Common Breeds of Service Dogs?
Certain types of dog breeds make great service dogs. The best service dogs are friendly, good-natured, well-behaved, obedient, and adept at performing tasks. The most common breeds of service dogs are:
- Labradors: Labs bond strongly with their owners and have what breeders refer to as a “soft mouth,” meaning they can gently carry or pick things up with their teeth. This trait makes Labradors ideal assistance dogs for those who have issues with mobility. Labs also have a good balance of high energy and relaxation time, making them the perfect fit for those who have an active lifestyle.
- German shepherds: German shepherds make great service dogs for several reasons. Their sense of smell makes them excellent medical alert dogs, they are strong and sturdy enough to help people with mobility impairments get around, and they are attentive and intelligent enough to pick up on emotional cues and provide support.
- Golden retrievers: Golden retrievers are loyal, playful, and generally happy dogs. They’re easy to train and usually enjoy having a job or task to do. Golden retrievers work well as guide dogs for people who are blind and/or deaf, and their sweet nature makes them ideal to work with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.
- Pomeranians: This small breed of dog isn’t ideal for physical or laborious tasks, but they make great medical alert dogs, and have been known to be especially adept at detecting changes in blood sugar levels.
- Great Danes: Great Danes are a large breed of dog that are suitable for helping people get up, balance, and walk, but are also stoic and calming enough to supply emotional support as well.
- Standard poodles: Standard poodles are resourceful, obedient, and great at problem-solving. They are highly intelligent, easy to train, and have a low-shed coat, which makes them suitable for owners who suffer from allergies.
7 Types of Service Dogs
No matter the type of breed, all service dogs must behave well in public places, and be adept at completing their tasks, Some common types of service dogs are:
- Guide dog: Also known as seeing-eye dogs, Labradors and golden retrievers make excellent guide dogs. Although guide dogs are red-green colorblind and cannot read traffic signals or signs, their main job is to help people who are blind and/or deaf move around obstacles.
- Psychiatric service dog: These dogs provide aid for owners living with psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental afflictions. Psychiatric dogs can remind their owners to take medications, interrupt panic attacks, or help adjust the environment (like turning on/off light switches) to produce a calming effect.
- Hearing dog: Hearing dogs are assigned to those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and can alert their owners to a baby’s cry, the doorbell, or a ringing phone.
- Mobility assistance dogs: These kinds of dogs are able to fetch or carry things for their owners who may be in a wheelchair or limited in their movement in another capacity due to anything from arthritis to spinal cord injuries.
- Alert dogs: Alert dogs are specially trained to notify their owners who have disorders like diabetes or seizures of changes to their conditions. Some dogs can detect a drop in blood sugar levels through scent, or alert owners who are about to have a seizure. They can also be trained to respond to those having a seizure, alerting others for help nearby, or bringing medication or a phone to someone who has just experienced a seizure.
- Autism support dogs: Autism support dogs help children with autism feel less isolated and comfort them in times of stress, confusion, or other emotional problems. Autism support dogs work as icebreakers for kids who have trouble socializing or connecting, and keep them away from distractions or running away.
- Allergy detection dogs: Allergy detection dogs, or anaphylaxis service dogs, are able to sniff out potential allergens like peanuts, gluten, or other ingredients that may be potentially harmful to its owner.
What Is the Difference Between Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs?
While there can be some crossover, service dogs and therapy dogs serve two different but very important functions. Service dogs are specifically trained dogs who provide essential services to their owners who may have physical or mental impairments. On the other hand, therapy dogs work as emotional support dogs for the needs of others (typically not their own owners).
Therapy dogs are brought to hospitals to cheer up sick patients, or to airports to quell air travel anxiety for passengers. Therapy dogs can help blood pressure and heart rate, while increasing endorphins and general mood. However, therapy dogs are not recognized as true service dogs under the ADA, so they do not get access to public facilities, cabins on commercial flights, or special housing accommodations.
How to Find a Service Dog
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There are many dog-training individuals and organizations that specialize in training dogs for medical service. To find a service dog, you’ll need a letter from a doctor or healthcare provider recommending a service animal to tend to your physical or psychiatric needs.
Training your own service dog can take years, but you can adopt one from a nonprofit organization or reputable trainer that is specifically trained to supply the proper aid. You can also choose a dog of your own and bring them to a training program to help them learn the task they need to perform to adequately assist you in your everyday life.
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