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An Overview of Assistance Dogs for People with Disabilities

An Overview of Assistance Dogs for People with Disabilities

There are a number of different types of assistance dogs for people with disabilities—all sorts of disabilities. Assistance dogs are highly trained to help their human partners live more safely and independently by mitigating certain aspects of their disabilities.

Assistance dogs are considered working animals, not pets. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people who handle assistance dogs have the federally protected legal right to take them into businesses and other public places, onto public transportation, into housing, and elsewhere, even where pets are prohibited.

3 Classes of Assistance Dogs for People with Disabilities

There are three main categories of assistance dog:

  • Guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired
  • Hearing dogs for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • Service dogs for a wide variety of disabilities

“Service dog” is a large catch-all category of assistance dog for any that aren’t guide or hearing dogs. Common types of service dogs include:

  • Mobility service dogs for people with disabilities that impair their mobility
  • Autism assistance dogs for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Medical alert dogs for those with conditions with physiological signs that can be monitored by a specially trained canine
  • Seizure dogs for people with epilepsy and other seizure disorders (a common type of medical alert dog)
  • Diabetic alert dogs for individuals with poorly controlled diabetes (another common type of medical alert dog)
  • Asthma monitoring dogs for those with severe, poorly controlled asthma (yet another type of medical alert dog)
  • Allergen alert dogs for people with life-threatening food allergies
  • Psychiatric service dogs for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other potentially debilitating psychiatric conditions

Tasks Performed by Assistance Dogs

Assistance dogs are trained to meet the individual needs of their human partner, so each may perform a unique assortment of tasks. There are many jobs they can learn to do, and practically endless combinations they can do them in to best help their handler.

However, there are certain duties that each category of assistance dog typically performs. Here’s a quick, generalized look at the sort of help some types of assistance dogs provide:

  • Guide dogs usually do things like lead their partner around safely inside and outside, open and close doors, direct their partner to doorknobs and handles, move tripping hazards out of the way, fetch items, pick things up that fall, indicate available seats, and get help in an emergency.
  • Hearing dogs primarily alert their handler to important sounds, such as their name being called, a phone ringing or making notification sounds, someone knocking at the door or ringing the bell, alarm clocks, emergency alarms, a baby crying, oven and other timers, a teapot whistling, honking vehicles, items falling, and so on.
  • Mobility service dogs may pull a wheelchair, provide steadying support, help their partner get up and down or in and out, fetch and carry items, pick things up that fall, guide their handler away from danger, open and close doors and cabinets, turn lights on and off, get help in an emergency, etc.
  • Autism assistance dogs can help calm a person who’s overstimulated, provide soothing pressure, direct their attention to something important, steer them away from a potential hazard, alert parents to a problem, interrupt stimming behaviors, encourage communication and interaction, and more.
  • Medical alert dogs, including diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, seizure response dogs, asthma monitoring dogs, and others, are taught to monitor certain physiological signs that indicate danger, such as low blood glucose levels, an oncoming seizure, or distressed breathing. They signal the danger to their partner, can respond to emergencies with such actions as getting insulin, holding down a seizing person until the episode ends, or fetching an albuterol inhaler.

Getting an Assistance Dog

There’s a lot to consider before deciding to get an assistance dog for yourself or a loved one. It takes a commitment initial training, and to providing appropriate care for the dog over the course of the partnership. Although assistance dogs aren’t technically pets, they obviously still require healthy food, daily exercise, walks to relieve themselves, toys, love and attention, veterinary care, and everything else a pet canine needs. You must have the room in your home, the financial stability, and the willingness and ability to provide adequate care.

Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and German shepherds are the most common breeds trained as assistance dogs, but any breed can work as one. Deciding which breed is right for you and your family is another important consideration.

It’s important to only get an assistance dog from a provider that is accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF). This helps ensure that you receive a properly raised and trained dog, and that you get appropriate support during and after the partnering process. Start with these sites for more information about the process, and use their search features to find potential accredited assistance dog providers near you.

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