From service animals that help navigate the small and large tasks at home or in public, to those that assist the blind and detect when a person is vulnerable to a seizure, service animals are capable of meeting a myriad of needs.
Service animals are trained to perform different tasks; there is no one single animal that can perform all of the functions that an individual may need or expect, however. Finding the right fit, for both the animal and the individual, is the result of hours of assessments and rigorous training. When a match is found, however, the pairing is usually a match.
What types of service animals are available?
Service animals can only help a person if he or she has the skills that an individual needs. Those skills, of course, are based on the nature and severity of a person’s disabilities.
There are several types of service dogs that can meet a variety of needs; choosing the right animal to perform tasks can only occur after the person has given assessment specialists all of the required information about his or her condition.
The types of service dogs are broken down by the tasks in which they are trained. The types of assistant dogs that are available include:
This type of dog is most often paired with individuals that are blind or visually impaired. A guide dog often accompanies his owner wearing a U-shaped harness, which allows the human to control the dog using a series of directional commands. These dogs are trained to identify – and avoid – potential obstacles both inside and outside of the home. Often, guide dogs are trained to negotiate busy areas, including city sidewalks and public transportation.
A hearing dog is a service animal that alerts deaf or hearing impaired people to events that are happening around them. Noises that occur out in public or at home, such as a siren or the ring of a telephone, are events that a deaf person needs to know about to live their daily lives. When alerting, a dog will physically contact his or her owner. The contact will be different based on the type of sound that is occurring; this makes it possible for an owner to how to respond. Hearing dogs undergo extensive audio response training, which allows them to recognize, and identify, sound. Generally, hearing dogs must be able to alert owners to sound within seconds of its occurrence.
A service dog is an animal that assists people that have disabilities other than visual or hearing impairments. This is one of the most common dogs employed by a family; they are trained to render assistance to people with physical disabilities. A service dog is trained to help mitigate a physical disability; they are trained to pull wheelchairs, assist a person in maintain proper balance. They also serve people with cognitive difficulties or psychiatric conditions. Other common tasks service dogs perform include retrieving dropped objects that are out of reach, closing or opening doors, finding other people, or turning a light switch on or off.
Skilled companion dogs
A skilled companion dog is similar to a service dog, except for the fact that a skilled companion dog works under the supervision of a facilitator. Under this system, the dog is supervised by the owner with a disability, and another individual that is most likely a parent, child, or caregiver. It is imperative that a facilitator work to maintain a bond between the dog and its owner; even though trainers take a team approach in training the dog. In terms of tasks, the dog will perform many of the same feats executed by a service dog, such as retrieving items, opening and closing doors, or providing physical assistance.
This type of dog provides assistance to individuals in an institutional setting. They are supervised by facilitators in a healthcare or educational facility; the direct care of the animal is the responsibility of the facilitator and the organization that owns the dog. A common presence in special education facilities, facility dogs can help provide a sense of companionship for children at school or at a health care facility. The dogs also provide assistance during physical therapy sessions.
Seizure response dogs
Of all service animals available today, seizure dogs cause the most confusion among potential owners. Although seizure dogs are trained to assist people that have seizures, they cannot predict and oncoming seizure. However, they can activate life-saving alert systems that summon medical help, roll a person into proper position, or retrieve medications that can be administered to help put an end to a seizure. They can also provide physical stability if a person requires support. Some dogs are able to predict seizures with accuracy before one occurs, but this is not something that occurs consistently; a more likely scenario is that the dog will help a person once one takes place. No one knows why a dog may be able to predict a seizure; scientists theorize that a dog may detect changes in a person’s bloodstream, or observe differences in a person’s eyes that happen before a seizure takes place.
Emotional Support Animal
One of the main differences of an emotional support animal is that he or she is often not a dog. Sometimes called a psychiatric service animal, the creature may be a dog, cat, guinea pig, horse or rabbit. The animal’s role is to assist people with emotional troubles or mental conditions by providing a stable, comforting presence. A person must have a prescription for an animal from a licensed therapist; a person will have to prove that he or she needs the animal to cope with everyday stressors. Typically, a person that has an emotional support animal may experience depression, bipolar disorder, hallucinations, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder or behavioral/personality disorders
Like emotional support animals, therapy animals are often, but not always dogs. These animals will most often be found in senior homes, rehabilitation centers, schools, hospitals or nursing homes to bring comfort and hope to children and adults. The idea behind therapy animals is that they provide emotional support that allows people to be more optimistic about their treatment; the animal helps provide a coping mechanism for people facing serious medical challenges.
Service animals demonstrate a core set of skills
All service animals, no matter what role they play in the lives of their masters, need to be able to demonstrate a core set of skills that are required for an animal to be able to fulfill his duties. This is especially true for dogs.
Not all dogs, even if they are a breed that trainers often work with, have the proper temperament to serve as service animals. For that reason, dogs undergo significant training to cultivate qualities desired in an service animal.
Dogs, to be effective, must have the following attributes:
- The ability to follow basic commands, such as stopping, sitting or lying down, from an owner
- The ability to memorize and follow hand signals or commands, or be able to respond to the tone of an individual’s voice
- The knowledge to understand that he or she is working, and the ability to maintain decorum
- The ability to focus on the needs of an owner, as opposed to distractions
To handle an assistant dog, an individual must be able to:
- Follow the dog’s lead to negotiate obstacles
- Understand and implement training techniques
- Understand dog health, and retain medical services (including vaccinations)
- Know and adhere to local laws, understand rights
What is the difference between an service animal and a comfort animal?
Comfort animals are a welcome addition to any family, but there’s a big difference between comfort animals and assistive animals, both in what’s expected of them, and how their services are viewed by the law.
The ADA recognizes assistive animals of all stripes, but comfort animals are not recognized by the law. This means that a comfort animal will not be able to enter public places with their master, and they will not be able to travel alongside a human in the way that a service animal does. It doesn’t mean that a comfort animal is not a viable idea to help a child, it just means that the animal will not be given the same kinds of access a service animal enjoys.
Unlike an assistive animal, a comfort animal is not trained to perform specific tasks, which is why they are not ADA-protected.
There is an effort by advocacy groups to extend ADA protections to comfort animals, but these efforts have not gained traction from lawmakers.