Service dogs are most well known for their guide work for the blind, but there are many other ways that service dogs can assist disabled individuals! These forms of work can range from allergy detection, diabetic alert, seizure alert and response, cardiac alert, and mobility aid, alongside many others!
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What is a Service Dog?
A service dog is a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate its handler’s disability. However, there are additional requirements a service dog must meet. A person paired with a service dog is granted full public access for the dog to accompany the handler anywhere they may go, with very few exceptions. Having one of these specially trained dogs helps give the handler more independence, greater joy, fulfillment in life. Finding a service dog to meet your needs isn’t always an easy task.
What Types of Service Dogs are There?
Because there’s such a wide range of disabilities, there are many jobs a service dog can be trained to do for each one. The type of service a dog is trained to perform will always correlate to the individual’s disability.
For example, someone with a visual impairment may have a dog trained to lead them around obstacles they can not see, stop at crosswalks, and guide the handler to specific locations due to this impairment. However, the same blind person may not need a dog that responds to cardiac events.
Here are a few examples of the most common types of service dogs.
- Allergy Detection Service Dog
Allergy detection dogs are trained to the handler’s specific allergy, whether as simple as peanuts or as complex as all types of gluten and dairy. These dogs are scent trained to perform a sniff check on command to detect the specific allergen. These dogs then alert their handler to the allergen’s presence or signal that the food/object is safe.
For children and adults on the autism spectrum, service dogs can be trained to provide various work or tasks to help the individual. Many people with autism (but most commonly children) will bolt or run away if they face sensory overload. “Tethering” is a task that can keep the child or adult handler anchored to the dog, preventing them from running into an unsafe situation or becoming lost. Tactile grounding is another task providing a type of anchor. Grounding tends to be more calming, where the dog provides purposeful contact with the handler to keep them grounded.
- Cardiac Alert/Response Dog
Some service dogs are trained with particular tasks to assist an individual with a cardiac condition. Cardiac alert and response dogs can be trained to alert the handler to oncoming cardiac episodes and respond to them once they occur. During a cardiac episode, dogs can be trained to get help, retrieve medication, or provide a brace for the person, protecting them from potential injury if they are at risk of falling.
- Diabetic Alert Dog (or DAD)
DAD’s are highly trained scent dogs trained to perform blood sugar checks by scenting chemical changes in their diabetic human partner. These dogs can often give an alert before the blood sugar level becomes dangerously high or low.
- Guide Dogs for the Blind
Guide dogs, or “seeing-eye dogs,” are service dogs that are trained to lead a visually impaired person around any obstacles, find specific land markers (such as truncated domes on the sidewalk, stairs, and curbs) while avoiding other people passing by.
- Hearing Dogs
Individuals with a hearing impairment may benefit from a hearing dog. These dogs assist their handlers by alerting their handler to specific noises. These can range from a doorbell, fire alarm, a baby crying, kitchen timer, or alarm clock. After alerting their handler, they perform some light guide work to lead the handler directly to the noise.
- Mobility Assistance Dogs
Dogs who perform mobility work can have a wide range of tasks. Mobility issues often range in severity (this could be anything from arthritis to paralysis). These dogs can retrieve dropped objects, press handicap buttons to open doors, brace for someone who needs extra support or balance, and even pull a wheelchair.
- POTS or Dysautonomia Service Dog
A common symptom of POTS or Dysautonomia is “syncope,” or fainting. Fainting with POTS is often caused by the body not correctly regulating during changes in gravity which affect the blood flow. These dogs can be trained to pick up dropped items keeping the handler from bending over, altogether avoiding the gravity change that would alter the blood flow to the brain. Bracing to provide balance support to their handler and even alerting to a syncope episode before it happens, allowing that person to get to a safe place before fainting. Fast-acting dogs can help prevent broken bones and traumatic brain injuries that could occur during a fainting episode.
- Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs (often confused with emotional support animals) are trained to assist people suffering from psychiatric issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to retrieve medication regularly and provide tactile stimulation to disrupt emotional overload. Alerting to high cortisol levels, turning lights on to check rooms are everyday tasks for hyper-vigilant handlers who need reassurance. These dogs can find and lead the handler to an exit, provide deep pressure therapy (targeting pressure points and reducing blood flow to lower the heart rate), and perform crowd control or blocking from behind to prevent people from coming too close in public.
- Seizure Alert Dogs
Seizure alert dogs are dogs that are trained to alert to seizures before they happen. This is believed to be determined by chemical changes the dog can scent and alert to. This gives the handler warning beforehand, allowing them to find a safe place to lay down during a seizure.
However, it remains a controversial topic in the service dog world. Some organizations claim a dog can’t be trained to alert to seizures. While there isn’t substantial evidence to suggest dogs can predict seizures, individual dogs have shown natural alerting abilities that have proven effective. The most successful way to achieve a seizure alert dog is shaping the natural alert with additional training.
- Seizure Response Dogs
Seizure response dogs (different from seizure alert dogs) can be trained to respond to a seizure in a few different ways. They may retrieve medication, turn off dangerous appliances, retrieve a phone or alert a specific person for help. Seizure response dogs may also respond to a seizure by breaking the person’s fall, reducing head trauma during the seizure.
What Dogs Make Good Service Dogs?
Ultimately, dogs with the right temperament will always make the best service dogs. When considering what dogs make good service dogs, remember how important it is that the dog has decent intelligence, a friendly demeanor, and a strong desire to work.
Breeds that often show the highest level of working ability tend to be Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, as well as Smooth and Rough Collies. These breeds are known as the “Fab Four” and are most commonly used in service dog training programs and organizations because they have the highest success rates. You’ll also notice that individuals who are owner training their service dog will often go with these breeds. Many people choose a poodle mixed breed such as the Goldendoodle or Whoodle giving them the temperament and intelligence needed for a service dog as well as the desired look of these breeds.