Do you suffer from a medical condition or allergy that impairs your daily life? Well, maybe a service animal could be a life-changing companion for you.
Not only does having a four-legged, furry friend at your side reduce anxiety and sadness ... but these highly trained, loving dogs can really make your daily life so much easier.
A dog is an invaluable partner and a faithful life companion. But for people with disabilities and other medical conditions it can be much more than that. A service dog can literally be a lifesaver, providing greater independence, freedom from fear, and constant support.
Here is everything that you need to know about having service animals.
What are service dogs?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs (and in some cases, miniature horses) ‘are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities’. Examples of these tasks include guiding someone who is blind, pulling a wheelchair, or alerting someone with diabetes that their blood sugar levels have dropped.
Moreover, service dogs have public access rights, which means they can go to places where other animals are not allowed, including restaurants, libraries, and public transportation.
Service Animals vs Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
During the last decade, the use of service animals (or assistance animals) and emotional support animals (ESAs) has rapidly expanded. People often confuse service animals and ESAs.
In a nutshell, a service animal is an animal that is specifically trained to perform specialized tasks that their owner is either incapable of doing or would find it very difficult to do on his/her own. Most often, dogs are used as service animals due to their intelligent nature and strong connection with human beings; however, this doesn’t mean that other kinds of animals can’t serve as service animals too.
On the other hand, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and therapy animals are similar to service animals but are used primarily for the emotional comfort they provide to their owners. So, ESAs do not necessarily require any specific training, as they just bring comfort and joy to their human partners of all ages.
Who Needs Service Animals?
If you or someone you know has a disability, you may find a service dog helpful.
In order to qualify for a service dog, first of all you need to make sure that your disability or your medical condition falls under the ADA definition of a mental or physical disability. But this is not necessarily enough! You must also provide adequate documentation from a medical professional that your condition could be improved or supported somehow by the service dog. Therefore, getting in touch with a medical professional is most often the first step in applying for a service animal.
The ADA does not list every mental and physical disability that could be eligible as there are too many and there are many other factors to be considered too. But, if you feel that you meet all requirements, you can go through the application process to determine if your specific case qualifies for a service animal.
Conditions that may qualify for service animals include blindness, deafness, paralysis, multiple sclerosis, autism, epilepsy etc. In contrast, those people with conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression may find great comfort from an ESA, but these animals would be separately categorized with different regulations. Again, the best way to find out what works best for you and your needs is to talk to a doctor or a mental health professional who will make these distinctions.
Only service dogs or other animals too?
The breeds that are most commonly used as service dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherd dogs. However, the best service dogs must share the following key characteristics: a desire to work, a calm behavior, intelligence and obedience, and a friendly, loving disposition to their handler.
It is extremely important to remember that service animals are not pets, but they are animals doing a job!
Nonetheless, dogs are not the only animals who can assist individuals with disabilities. For instance, capuchin monkeys — small, quick, and intelligent — can aid people who are paralyzed or have other severe impairments to their mobility, like multiple sclerosis. In addition, one of the most unusual assistance animals are the guide tiny horses, which may be an alternative for those who are allergic to dogs or who are more comfortable with horses.
Assessing the patients’ needs and the ways in which a service animal can support them is fundamental in deciding to get a service animal ... because a trained service dog can be quite expensive and comes with its own needs as well.
Besides the cost, there is a learning process to be considered. The person who makes use of a service animal must first learn how to properly interact with the animal and learn its signals and commands.
In this regard, there are many resources that you can rely on to find a companion service dog. A very famous organization at a global level that may help you get a service animal is Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which doesn’t provide or train dogs itself directly, but it is made up of several accredited members worldwide that train and place assistance dogs. Click on members search to find a member program in your area that fits best for you.
More specifically, if you are looking for one in the UK, I would suggest that you visit this webpage that provides you with some associations you can contact directly. Go check out this article, instead, to locate some of the US organizations that can help you with your search.
If you still have any doubt about how to get a service dog and the implications that come with it, you can give a look at the Assistance Dogs International’s General FAQs.
How to train your own service dog
Unlike emotional support dogs or therapy animals, service dogs undergo rigorous training so that they can assist with everyday tasks. Both non-profit and for-profit organizations train service dogs, but the cost of training can exceed $25,000 and can take up to two years.
People who wish to train their own service dogs should first work with their candidate dog on foundation skills by starting with house training, and then socialize the dog in order to have it remain on task in the presence of unfamiliar people, places, sounds, scents, and other animals. Focus on training your dog to stay present with you and ignore any distractions. Once you and your dog have covered the basics, you can move on to training your dog how to assist you to fulfil your specific needs and help you cope with your medical condition.
Perhaps the most famous type of service dogs is guide dogs, which are known for helping blind and visually impaired individuals cross the street and lead them around obstacles.
Hearing dogs, instead, are trained to assist their deaf and hard-of-hearing partners, while mobility assistance dogs can bring objects to people, press buttons on automatic doors etc.
Now we are going to dig into other types of service dogs ... especially how they support people with specific medical conditions.
Also known as Diabetic alert dogs (DADs), these service dogs can provide greater sense of independence and help their owner manage their symptoms by alerting to chemical changes in their blood sugar before the levels become too dangerous.
When the dogs alert, their handler knows they must test their blood and use necessary medication before the blood sugar levels drop further. Some dogs are even trained to call emergency services on a special K-9 alert phone if they are home alone.
Read here about Abbey and Darby’s special connection, and you will definitely get an idea of how her service dog has made her life so much better!
Seizure dogs assist a person during and/or after an epileptic seizure. This may include
Thus, these dogs give people greater independence. They are a sort of "alarm system". They are helpers, protectors, and service providers. To find out more, check out Amy’s story with her Labrador Stanley.
Autism is a spectrum disorder and can vary significantly in character and severity, so autism service dogs may be trained differently according to where their person falls on the spectrum. Autism support dogs are used primarily to benefit children, but there's nothing to stop them from helping adults as well.
As for children, these dogs act as an icebreaker in social situations, as they can be a huge help for kids who have trouble connecting with classmates, thus boosting their confidence. They also improve the child’s quality of life by reducing isolation and comforting the child in stressful times. And they can be trained to prevent children from wandering off or can track children if they run away.
An autism assistance dog typically works with a team leader (usually a parent) and wears a harness that is attached to a child. It is also trained to interrupt harmful and repetitive behaviours that are common in many autistic children. Here is the story of Thomas and his autism assistance dog Marky.
On the other hand, for adults with autism, service dogs can be a vital bridge to help them live on their own. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for autistic adults to be matched with a service dog because most organizations training and supporting autism assistance dogs serve children and families. So the path to finding a service dog may be a longer and more expensive process, but for most people, it’s worth the time and expense.
Even for adults, service dogs help to facilitate interaction with the world around them by improving social interactions and relationships, expand their verbal and nonverbal communication, and interrupt behaviours, while calming their emotional outbursts as well. In this video, you will listen to the story of an autistic woman named Rebecca and how her service dog Milo (who she trained herself with the help of a school in Portland) has made her much more confident and independent.
Patients who are diagnosed with a respiratory disease such as severe asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can benefit from a medical alert dog too.
In these cases, their service dog can be trained to remind them to check their oxygen levels, shortness of breath, or medication levels. In addition, these dogs can retrieve medication, call for help, wake up a person suffering from poor breathing, or alert others to an ongoing medical emergency.
Cardiac alert service dogs are dogs trained to detect any changes in their handler’s heart rate and blood pressure.
Once they recognize such a condition, they warn their handler and are also likely to notify a family member. Cardiac dogs are likely to use their strong sense of smell to recognize chemical alterations that occur when the blood pressure or the heart rate changes.
With the surge in food allergies, allergy detection dogs are trained to sniff out and alert to allergy-inducing smells such as peanuts or gluten.
Often used with children, these service dogs provide kids with a greater sense of independence and give their parents a stronger sense of security. Read here the intriguing story of Yasmine, born with a severe allergy to nuts, and how her dog Nano has saved her life as he has been trained to detect nut odour traces in both food and the environment.
Legal issues around service animals: differences between UK and US
Let's first make it clear that the law states that service animals do not have to wear a vest or a special patch or harness that identifies them as such. It's up to the handler to decide whether or not to have them wear a vest or something else.
In the US, service dogs are widely accepted in hospitals, schools, stores, accommodation, transportation, and many public places, as long as they have been registered as a qualified service/assistance dog. If you are curious to know more about the legal aspects related to having a service dog in the US, click on this link.
But, if you are wondering whether your dog can be certified and can accompany you anywhere in the UK, here are the things you need to know beforehand:
The most significant UK legislation regarding service animals is the Equality Act 2010 which requires people with disabilities to have the same rights to services as everyone else. This act protects service dogs from any illegal discrimination when entering places where animals are prohibited or when accompanying owners by taxi or airplane. If you want to know more about traveling with your assistance dog in the UK, you can check out the Assistance Dog Travel Website to view their travel resources.
Another key aspect to be emphasized is that in the UK there is no service dog register, which implies that it is not possible to register a dog as an assistance dog, regardless of where it has been trained. However, most UK companies or premises recognize the service dog that has been trained and certified by one of the following organizations: Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and The International Guide Dog Foundation (IGDF).
The laws in the UK do not apply to other assistance animals like emotional support animals (ESAs). Currently ESAs do not have legal recognition in the way service dogs do in the UK, and there is no register for them either.
Also, unlike the US, almost all UK airlines allow only service dogs to enter the passenger cabin, while other animals (such as ESA and pets) must be transported in the cargo hold.
In summary, service animals are more than pets, and more than companions too. The incredible work they do enhances independence and security for thousands of people worldwide -- both children and adults -- with physical, cognitive disabilities or other serious medical conditions, while also improving the quality of their everyday lives.
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