Service dogs have helped millions of people achieve independence and lead happy and fulfilling lives. Today we want to honor these special canines by sharing some of the qualities that make some dogs well-suited to serve as assistants to people with disabilities.
There are two types of service dogs: assistance dogs and therapy dogs. If you’ve ever wondered about what job that golden retriever or Labrador in a vest is doing, read on for a snapshot of the life of a service dog. Also, we will share some details on how you can help the service dog community, either by fostering service-dogs-to-be in their puppyhood or by adopting a retired service animal.
For the most part, assistance dogs are canines who help a person (also called a “handler”) who has a physical disability, psychiatric disorder, visual impairment, hearing impairment, or another disability. So-called “seeing eye dogs” (or guide dogs) are in the Assistance Dog category, as are canines who help people with mobility issues. Assistance dogs also provide emotional support and companionship to people with psychological disorders.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows people with certain disabling conditions to be accompanied by service dogs in public spaces that might otherwise be off-limits to pet dogs and other animals. The key here is accessibility: the ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities by assuring that they can use the same services and facilities as people without physical or psychological limitations, and many find that having the help of an assistance dog makes life easier and safer.
Each type of assistance dog receives extensive training to help him or her to develop the skills and temperament needed to perform complex tasks to help their human navigate the challenges of daily living. Assistance dogs can learn to do many critical tasks for their human handlers, including learning to watch traffic and cross streets safely, retrieving keys and other objects, and figuring out when and how to alert their human to a ringing fire alarm or another sound.
Assistance dogs are given the tools they need to succeed by service dog schools that recruit, train, and raise these dogs to be committed to their jobs and their human partner’s safety and success.
Here are a few of the behaviors that are expected of assistance dogs:
Focus on the handler:
Assistance dogs must be able to focus on their person at all times so that they can keep that person safe.
Whether there’s a ham sandwich in front of the dog’s nose or a child trying to get doggy to play, assistance dogs must be able to screen out all distractions unless they get their handler’s permission to cut loose.
Walk well when on a leash or in harness:
Assistance dogs must be able to walk without pulling or lunging. Furthermore, when the handler is seated, an assistance dog must lie quietly by his or her side and patiently wait until it’s time to go.
Not sniff stuff without permission:
Dogs experience the world through their noses, but it’s really important for assistance animals not to go sniffing things without permission.
Respond to their handler’s cues quickly:
Assistance dogs are expected to follow their handler’s verbal and nonverbal commands quickly. Also, most assistance dogs are trained without the use of food treats, so they are taught to respond to verbal praise as a reward.
Assistance dogs are well housebroken and tend to be quiet, respectful, and professional.
Perform assistance tasks:
Some dogs don’t have a specific set of jobs to do for their handlers, and these are classified as emotional support dogs (more on this below). All assistance dogs are required to do at least one (but usually more than one) task for their handler.
Also known as emotional support dogs or companion dogs, therapy dogs are usually part of a human-canine volunteer team to help people in need by providing doggy affection and support. A therapy dog is a well-trained animal who visits with people who are sick, distressed, or otherwise in need of a little extra boost of support. Disaster victims, veterans, children with disabilities, and patients with debilitating illnesses are among the list of ideal candidates who can benefit from visits with an emotional support dog.ar
The positive effects of therapy animals are well documented in research, and therapy dogs are routinely used to help veterans to recover from PTSD and other trauma, children with autism who are learning social skills and empathy, and people who are suffering from serious illnesses who need a boost of love and support.
It’s essential to note that although they do important work, therapy dogs are not guaranteed access to public facilities in the same way that assistance dogs are. In general, assistance dogs are allowed to go places where other animals are not because their presence assures that their human partner can access public services. The owners of therapy dogs, on the other hand, must obtain permission to visit less dog-friendly locations in order to provide emotional support. Often, therapy dogs are used as a part of a structured program that’s designed to help people in need.
Guide Dogs: Training and Temperament
Guide dogs are a type of assistance dog with the special task of helping their vision-impaired or blind handler to navigate the world safely. Perhaps the most recognizable type of service dog, guide dogs typically wear harnesses when they’re working and are calm, patient, and extremely focused on helping their human stay safe in the hustle-bustle of the world.
In the past, certain breeds (such as German shepherds) were preferred for guide dog training, but in recent years, many more breeds have been successfully trained and paired with a human who needs their help. Labradors and golden retrievers are breeds frequently recruited by guide dog programs.
All assistance dog schools have a process for screening and training candidates, but in general, they look for dogs who are focused, calm, motivated to work, and people-friendly. Also, it’s important for guide dogs not to be overly curious or distractible, because they sometimes have to do their jobs in active and stressful environments (restaurants, playgrounds, and workplaces). It’s critically important for the dog to be able to resist the temptation to sniff things, greet strangers, pull the leash, or decide to go for a romp without the handler’s approval.
Usually, guide dog schools start the screening process by placing potential service dogs in foster homes while they are puppies. These “puppy raisers” have a challenging job indeed! They must socialize the dogs extensively and train them to do a variety of basic obedience tasks like “sit,” “lie down,” and walking nicely on a leash.
Furthermore, puppy raisers are expected to expose the potential guide dogs to new situations, so that as adults the dogs are ready to deal with adverse circumstances like bad weather, busy settings, and loud noises or other distractions. Finally, puppy raisers must teach their charges to respond to human direction using praise alone (no training treats!), so that the dogs are ready for the extensive training ahead of them.
Once a puppy is about a year old, it’s time to go to guide dog school, which usually lasts between 5 months and a year, depending on the program. Dogs who enter guide dog training are assessed for a variety of personality traits so that they’re a good match for the job. Ideally, guide dogs are confident, intelligent, motivated to learn, responsive to touch and verbal instruction, have a good memory and the ability to focus for extnded periods of time, and are in excellent health. Animals that are aggressive, reactive to other dogs or cats, or nervous are often screened out of guide dog training programs.
Here are just a few things that guide dogs are required to learn:
- Walking: Guide dogs must walk in straight lines and are trained to walk to the left and just a pace ahead of their person. During this phase, dogs also learn to respond to verbal cues and leash corrections.
- Stopping at curbs: All guide dogs learn to stop and sit at every curb they approach. Even if the dog’s person can cross streets without stopping at the curb, this is a critically important part of every guide dog’s training.
- Selective disobedience: This one is a big challenge! Although guide dogs are taught to be very responsive to their people, they also must sometimes “break the rules” to keep the team safe. Learning to identify risks and selectively disobey certain commands is a big part of a successful guide dog’s training.
- Navigating with handler’s needs in mind: Dogs have to learn to figure out how to select a route that is safe for their person. For example, dogs must learn how to calculate the height of obstacles so that they don’t choose a route that will cause their person to bonk their head on a low ceiling or run into an obstacle that the dog can easily avoid!
After training is complete, the guide dog school pairs the canine with a human companion and a team is formed. Visually impaired people who are given guide dogs typically spend a good bit of time at the school getting used to working with their new teammate and learning how to handle the dog. Until the dog is 8 or 9 years old, they will continue working each and every day to assure the independence and safety of their handler.
Adopting and Fostering Service Dogs
If you want to help the service dog community, there are a few things you can do. If you’re interested in adopting a retired service dog, they sometimes become available once they finish their working career! There are numerous NC and national organizations that train, place, and help with post-retirement adoption of service dogs of all sorts, from guide dogs for the blind to military service dogs that work in combat settings.
Another option is to help on the front-end of a service dog’s life by serving as a foster provider and puppy raiser for an assistance dog school. Most programs have an orientation and detailed training materials to help foster parents learn how to work with young dogs who may become assistance animals in the future. These programs offer lots of support to their puppy raisers.
If you see a service dog out in the community, it may be tempting to pet him or her (because, you know, dogs are adorable, and service dogs tend to be calm and friendly). However, before you do, make sure you ask the dog’s owner or handler. Since assistance dogs are always on the job, it’s important to make sure that the handler has a chance to let the dog know it’s OK to socialize with you!