What is a Service Dog?
A service or assistance dog provides disabled people with the direct help they need to perform daily tasks and live as independently as possible. Because these highly trained animals are allowed in most public places, they enable their “people” to be in those places too, expanding their independence. Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs usually live permanently as companion animals with the clients they serve. In general, service dogs and their training in the U.S. are regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
What Does a Service Dog Do?
The first service dogs were “seeing-eye dogs” trained to lead the blind. Today some service dogs are still trained to help the visually impaired while others learn to assist the hearing impaired and the mobility impaired. Because dogs have a “sense” of what is going on in the human body (thought possibly to be associated with their sense of smell), dogs can also be trained to alert epileptics to impending seizures and diabetic and hypoglycemic patients to an oncoming drop in blood sugar. The patients can then take proper precautions.
Other canines have been trained as psychiatric and neurological service dogs. They aid clients suffering from such conditions as panic attacks, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe anxiety, crippling phobias and autism.
How Is a Service Dog Selected?
Dogs to be trained for service are often furnished by breeders. Either the breeder or a volunteer puppy raiser cares for the dogs until they are old enough to start formal training. In some cases, the dogs are rescued from animal shelters.
To be selected for training, the dogs should be healthy and of an appropriate size for the tasks they will be taught to perform. These animals must be intelligent, sociable and trainable. The ADA does not require that the dog have the Canine Good Citizen certification before going into formal training. However, the dog must be potty trained and have basic social skills and good manners.
How is a Service Dog Trained?
Although an owner or handler can train his or her own dog, this is not usually recommended. Most formal service training is done in professional facilities by certified trainers.
Training can take months or years, depending on the complexity of the tasks the dog will be required to perform. The first level of basic service dog training includes obeying simple commands, learning common working positions and working on a leash. The most important thing a dog learns at this level is to stay focused on a task despite distractions. At the next level, the dog goes on to specific training based on a particular disability. He or she must learn to perform at least three tasks to mitigate that disability. For example, a dog may be trained to pull a wheelchair, open doors and fetch objects for a mobility impaired client.
Before clients receive a service animal, they too must be trained to handle the dog and demonstrate that they understand how to care for the needs of a canine companion.