Most of us are familiar with guide dogs that aid the visually impaired and those that assist people with mobility issues and physical needs (Picking up dropped car keys, pulling a wheelchair, bringing a water bottle or medication to their person, etc.). But did you know there many other types of hardworking, specifically trained service animals. In many cases, these animals help their handlers with less visible disabilities. To the average passerby, it may seem as though a handler with an “invisible” disability may not need a service dog. However, these animal companions are performing an amazing service and helping to transform the lives of their human handlers.
The American with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as one that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people living with disabilities. Let’s take a look at the less common types of service dogs:
Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric Service Dogs aid people whose mental impairment is so severe that it affects their ability to perform everyday tasks. These dogs can be placed with people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, and severe traumas.
In each of these examples, a Psychiatric Service Dog helps individuals gain or regain independence in numerous ways. For example, many veterans return from their service with PTSD and have trouble coping with issues in public that most of us take for granted. This can include being around large crowds, loud noises, and hyper vigilance.
A PTSD Service Dog can help by guiding their person through a crowd and/or to an exit, peacefully and physically blocking others from coming too close, or helping to calm an individual who is in the midst of, or about to have, a panic attack. They can even interrupt unhealthy behaviors such as pulling out hair, scratching at skin, constant fidgeting, and active self-harming.
Medical Alert/ Emergency Response Service Dogs
Like Psychiatric Service Dogs, these Service Dogs assist individuals without a constant, visible disability. These dogs are trained to provide a quick, targeted medical response unique to their person’s needs. In many cases their job is to warn their owner about an impending medical situation. These dogs assist with a variety of illnesses.
Diabetic Alert Dogs: Diabetic Alert Dogs are scent-trained alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior who alert their person to highs and lows in blood sugar (hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia) before they reach dangerous levels. This allows the individual to take steps to return their blood sugar to safe, normal levels. Once the Service Dog alerts its person, they can be asked to retrieve an individual to assist, a drink, a packaged snack, or even another person to assist.*
Migraine Alert/ Response: Migraine Alert Dogs are, in most cases, natural alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior who let a handler know that a migraine is oncoming, before the onset of symptoms. The alert gives the handler a chance to take measures that might curb the full onset of the migraine. The SD can then retrieve whatever might assist their handler.
Seizure Alert/ Response: Seizure Alert Dogs, are also, in most cases, natural alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior, who let a handler know that a seizure is oncoming before the onset of symptoms. The Service Dog can then lead their handler somewhere where they can sit down, alert a person with the handler to their oncoming seizure so they can assist, and help to physically block their handler from dangerous situations (such as stairs). If a seizure occurs, these service dogs are trained to safely wake their handler, help protect the handler from any head-related injuries, and provide structured emotional reassurance and comfort when the handler wakes.
Narcolepsy Alert/ Response: Narcolepsy Alert Dogs are scent-trained alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior who let a handler know when a narcoleptic episode is oncoming before the onset of symptoms. The Service Dog can also help to wake up their handler, seek out help, and bring any needed materials to the handler.
Cardiac Alert/ Response: Cardiac Alert dogs are, in most cases, natural alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior who let a handler know when there is a dangerous change in heart rate and blood pressure prior to the full onset of symptoms. The Service Dog helps by guiding their handler to a safe place, seeking out help, bringing any needed materials, and providing balance support if the handler is becoming light headed or nearing syncope or black out. If a black out occurs, the Service Dog is trained to seek help, attempt to wake the handler, remain by the handler’s side, and provide structured emotional reassurance and comfort.
Anaphylaxis Alert or Allergen Alert/ Response: Anaphylaxis/ Allergen alert dogs are scent trained alerters with a shaped/ trained alerting behavior who let a handler know when a dangerous allergen is nearby before the handler comes in contact with it. For example, these dogs can help alert a child who is allergic to peanuts to the scent of peanut butter in the school cafeteria. If a person does come in contact with an allergen and experiences anaphylactic shock, their Service Dog is trained to seek help, provide materials, and help to comfort and relax an individual after an allergic reaction has occurred.
*In many of the medical cases described above, Service Dogs are trained to seek out help from other individuals. When you see a Service Dog with their handler, you should treat them a little differently than a pet dog. It’s important to remember that Service Dogs are “on the job.” You shouldn’t call, pet, or feed a Service Dog – it could distract them from their duties! But do you know how to act if a Service Dog approaches you without their handler? Service Dogs wear specially marked vests or harnesses; they are allowed in public facilities that pets are not (airports, retail stores, restaurants, etc.). If a Service Dog approaches you, it means their person needs help. Service dogs are not trained to jump or bark, rather they approach other individuals by nudging the leg with their nose. This action is a signal they want you to follow them to their person. By responding calmly and quickly to the Service Dog, your actions can help make the difference in life-or-death scenarios.
The trainers at Dog’s Downtown focus on training dogs that will be good citizens in the home and out in the world, whether that be as a pet, a therapy dog, or a Service Dog. If you are in need of a Service Dog or have any questions about training a Service Dog, Dog’s Downtown has the experience, expertise, and professionalism to train and to assist owner-trainers with any of the Service Dog orientations listed in this article. Visit their website (http://www.dogsdowntownva.com) to learn more.