By Laura Hamilton
What Makes a Service Dog?
About 17 years ago my mom met her fiancée, who is a disabled veteran. At the time he had a dog for a pet that was always there for him, but was not a service dog. It loved to play with him and anyone that visited him. Eventually this dog passed away, and my mom’s boyfriend decided he needed a dog that could help him – a service dog. He eventually got approved for one through a nonprofit organization called NEADS, based near where we live in Massachusetts. After telling his story, he found out that they had only 6 dogs in the whole United States that they could give him, but that his dog was going to be free. The dog’s name is Roxy and she is a golden retriever.
I have watched Roxy do many different things. She knows how to open a refrigerator with a rope on it and get a water bottle for her if you say the word “tug.” Roxy also knows to eat and drink when she hears the command “take it.” When she hears the command “out” she will get ready to go to the door to go outside. Also, when she hears the command “go now,” she will go to the bathroom outside. I became interested in service dogs and wanted to write this article about the benefits of having one. I will be focusing on the previously mentioned organization NEADS, as it is based near where we live in Massachusetts
“Creating” a Service Dog
Service dogs are trained while they are puppies and are taught to work across many different environments. The dogs are watched to see how they recover from stressful situations. As a result, not all service dogs will graduate from the program. Not all dogs can be service dogs as they need a specific temperament to be placed into programs that train them. Those that do graduate must be people oriented, sociable, friendly, and well-mannered. The dogs have to have excellent health. Dogs are also supposed to weigh a certain amount, and their owners have to make sure they get enough exercise to stay in excellent health. If not, the owner has to speak with the service dog association about getting the dog in better shape. Each dog should get a controlled diet and regular exercise daily.
“Purpose breeding” is when an environment is created for a dog where its temperament, health, and overall suitability will be determined. When service dogs are trained, the puppies are exposed to differed surfaces, people, sounds and objects. Some dogs are trained to be hearing dogs, and they might come from animal shelters and rescue groups. Some will be high-energy dogs who are alert, attentive, and engaged. Dogs with these qualities can sometimes end up in shelters because people lose patience with them. Service dogs also may have consistent health monitoring that continues throughout their training. This would include routine care, orthopedic screenings, and vaccinations, for which NEADS partners with over three dozen veterinary practices. The training includes teaching dogs to perform tasks and behave obediently through the use of positive reinforcement and clear leadership. Dogs are selected that are natural followers, so it is easy to guide them into choosing behaviors that we like in order to reward them. NEADS exclusively trains dogs that they get as puppies. Assistance Dogs International has a list of organizations across the United States, some of which will train your own dog.
Service Dogs can perform many tasks for a person with a physical disability. These may include:
- Picking up dropped items
- Retrieving objects from tables or counters
- Turning light switches on and off
- Pushing automatic door buttons
- Tugging doors and cabinets open
- Standing and bracing for stability during a transfer
- Barking on command for help
- Getting a cordless phone in an emergency and more
- Pulling a wheelchair
- Alerting to a medical crisis
Different Types of Service Dogs
Service dogs are under the category of “assistance dogs”, and can help a variety of people with different disabilities and challenges. Service dog types include: Mobility Service Dog, Seizure Service Dog, Autism Service Dog, Diabetic Alert Service Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, Service Dogs for Veterans with Military-related PTSD and Medical Alert Service Dog. Service Dogs accompany their adult partner wherever they go, including the workplace, shopping, and traveling. Service dogs can also help people with many different types of disabilities, such as in a power or manual wheelchair, people who have balance issues, have autism, need seizure alert or response, or need to be alerted to other medical issues like low blood sugar, or have psychiatric disabilities.
A “guide dog” is what a dog is called for helping an adult that is blind or visually impaired. The adult will end up moving around more independently and will feel a sense of freedom, and get more confidence. Guide dogs make navigating streets easier, and assist the users to find locations, avoid obstacles, and stop at curbs. Also, the person who is blind or visually impaired can get assistance to use public transport, navigate shopping centers and buildings, find doors, seats and pedestrian crossing buttons. Finally, guide dogs can provide companionship, and promote social inclusion. One type of guide dog is a “hearing dog”. A hearing dog will alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to specific sounds such as a door knock or doorbell, alarm clock, oven buzzer, telephone, baby crying, name call, or a smoke alarm. The hearing dog will make contact with their partner and lead to the source of the sound. Hearing dogs are usually mixed breeds acquired from animal shelters and are small to medium in size.
In summary, service dogs can be used in the classroom, courthouse, hospital facility, or in individual or group therapy. A great resource to start looking for an assistance dog in your area would be Assistance Dogs International.
Laura Hamilton in a self-advocate for neurodiversity from Massachusetts. She was a graduate from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and Western Music, Magna cum Laude. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a young child. She is a Certified Peer Specialist, a Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner, and a Certified Professional Life Coach. She is passionate about music education, advocating for people with disabilities and special needs.