Service Dogs are purpose-trained dogs that perform tasks to assist their human companions with a disability. These dogs enable their humans to be independent and enjoy a better quality of life. Most importantly, they help to keep their people safe. In some cases, they can be the difference between life and death. So, let’s take some time to celebrate these extraordinary animals by understanding their roles and how they have transformed the lives of thousands of individuals with a disability.
What is a Service Dog
A Service Dog or Assistance Dog is a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. “Disability” can be a physical or mental limitation that substantially restricts one or more major life activities. Examples of Service Dogs include guide dogs that help blind and visually impaired individuals navigate their environments. Hearing dogs help alert hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds. Mobility dogs assist individuals who use wheelchairs or walking devices, while medical alert dogs help signal their humans to the onset of a medical issue such as a seizure or low blood sugar.
Types of Service Dogs
Locally, guide dogs for the visually impaired and hearing dogs for the hearing impaired are the most widely known types of Service Dogs, but there are many other types of Service Dogs. Here are some of the tasks that these dogs are trained to perform:
Mobility Assistance Service Dogs
These dogs can perform a wide range of tasks for people with mobility issues. They are trained to help bring objects to their humans and pull the wheelchair up a ramp. Mobility dogs help their handlers be more confident with their surroundings and become more independent.
Medical Alert Dogs
Alert dogs are trained to recognize the subtle changes in body chemistry that precede a life-threatening event. The scent changes in our body may be imperceptible to us, but not to these dogs. For example, Diabetic Alert Service Dogs alert their people to blood sugar highs and lows before the levels become dangerous and life-threatening. Many of these Medical Alert Dogs are also trained to alert others in the household or set off an alarm system if their humans need medical help.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric Service Dogs help people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. These dogs help to make their human feel safer. They can pick up on signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack before it happens. They will immediately distract their humans and find ways to help their humans calm down. People suffering from PTSD can become easily overwhelmed in public places. The Psychiatric Service Dog will stand between their handler and other people, acting as a buffer to provide his handler with needed space.
Psychiatric Service Dogs are sometimes confused with Emotional Support Animals (ESA). ESA is not the same as a Psychiatric Service Dog. An ESA does not require any specialised training and is not required to perform ‘services’, to actively assist their handler. Emotional Support Animals are considered pets, not service animals. They provide companionship and comfort to their owners, but they are not necessarily trained to identify possible anxiety attacks or know how to physically distract and block their humans from walking into dangerous situations.
What to do when you see a Service Dog
Before you approach or touch a Service Dog, there are some things you should know. Distracting a Service Dog can interfere with the very important job they are doing and could potentially cause harm to them and their humans.
Here are the Dos and Don’ts when you see a Service Dog.
- DO approach the owner/handler, not the dog. The handler’s life could depend on the dog staying focused on his job. It’s hard for the dog to stay focused with someone making weird sounds, waving, or standing in the way.
- DO ask for permission before touching a Service Dog.
- DON’T offer food to a service dog. This can be a distraction. Many Service Dogs are on a strict diet and feeding schedule. Service Dogs, like all dogs, can have food sensitivities. If a Service Dog becomes sick, it cannot perform its job properly.
- DON’T assume a napping Service Dog is off duty. A sleeping Service Dog is still on the job.
- DON’T approach a Service Dog with your dog!
- DON’T assume a Service Dog never gets to have fun.
Caring for your Service Dog
People who own service dogs already know how important it is to make sure their dog is impeccably taken care of and kept as healthy as can be. If you’ve never owned a dog but are thinking of getting one for yourself or a family member, do make sure you are ready to care for one. Service Dogs, like all dogs, need proper care and plenty of love.
Regular vet checkups
All dogs, including your Service Dog, should get a checkup at least once a year. Regular visits to the vet will ensure that any health problems your Service Dog may develop can be addressed immediately.
Regular bathing and grooming
Other things you can do at home to keep your Service Dog healthy include proper oral care with daily toothbrushing, bathing, and grooming.
Some basic items that all dog owners will need in their doggy care kit:
- Oral Care Kit. Here’s a basic kit to get you started - TropiClean Fresh Breath - Oral Care Kit (Toothbrush, Finger Brush & Gel) for Dogs.
- Bathing kit. Include an SLS and paraben-free shampoo such as this 1022 Green Pet Care Anti-Bacterial Dog Shampoo that helps to eliminate germs thoroughly and protects your dog’s skin from yeast and fungal infections. You can include a bathing brush like this KONG ZoomGroom Dog Brush (Raspberry) in the kit to help remove loose hair and reduces shedding around the house.
- Grooming kit. This kit should have a grooming brush, a nail trimmer, and an ear cleaner solution.
High-quality dog food
The type of food you choose can affect the health and lifespan of your dog. There are plenty of good commercial dog foods. Do discuss with your vet what’s best for your Service Dog. The type of food to feed will depend on the services performed, the dog’s age, and the breed.
Prepare a first aid kit
You can include your doggy’s items into your first aid kit or prepare a separate one for him. Do include the Safari Styptic Powder for Dogs and Cats into the kit. This powder helps to quickly and effectively stops minor bleeding. If your Service Dog suffers from a minor cut or abrasion and is bleeding, simply apply the powder to the affected area with a clean cotton swab or gauze and apply moderate pressure until the bleeding stops.
Other items to consider
His needs will depend, to a certain degree, on your lifestyle as well. For example, if you spend a substantial amount of time outdoors, your Service Dog will be spending great amount of time outdoors too. With soaring local temperature outdoors, you will want to keep your dog hydrated and cool with plenty of water and a cooling dog bandana like this FuzzYard Cooling Bandana (Ice Ice Puppy) For Cats & Dogs. In this same example, consider bringing along a compact, collapsible dog bowl like this Ruffwear Quencher™ Collapsible Food & Water (Tumalo Teal) Dog Bowl for food and water.
Service Dogs are much more than just pets. They are trained to perform tasks that their handlers cannot. They help their handlers navigate the challenges of life and they become an essential part of their handlers’ life. But never forget, although Service Dogs take care of humans, they also need to be taken care of simply as a dog. A Service Dog needs understanding, nurturing, care, and the occasional time off to be a dog.
Katherine is a Pet Nutrition Specialist and GDP’s Pet Wellness Advisor. She is committed to helping pet owners make informed dietary and lifestyle choices in nurturing healthy pets. Katherine is also a practicing Nutritional Therapist (human nutrition) and has been helping hundreds of clients to heal naturally with nutrients.