For many individuals living with all sorts of disabilities and health conditions, it can be a real struggle to complete even basic daily tasks that most people barely give a thought to. Also, many worry about potentially life-threatening symptoms or effects of their condition on a daily basis.
One option people with certain disabilities should be familiar with is partnership with an assistance dog. These working animals (this is how they’re classified—they aren’t considered pets) make life much easier and safer for individuals who have a wide range of conditions. And when you’re partnered with one, you have the right to take him or her with you everywhere the public can go, to work or school, and into your home—even where pets are not allowed.
Each assistance dog is highly trained to perform specific tasks that benefit their handler. That means each one is trained slightly differently based on the circumstances. Because of this, and because there’s such an incredible number of tasks these animals can be taught, there’s a lot of variety as to what each individual assistance dog does.
However, there are lots of common responsibilities within each type of assistance dog (there are three classes of assistance dogs). So below we’ll take a quick general look at how assistance dogs help people with disabilities.
Who Can Benefit from an Assistance Dog?
The three types of assistance dogs can be a life-changing help to individuals—children and adults—with a wide variety of disabilities. For just some examples, they can benefit:
- People who are blind or visually impaired
- People who are deaf or hearing impaired
- People with impaired mobility
- People on the autism spectrum
- People with epilepsy or other seizure disorders
- People with some life-threatening medical conditions, like diabetes, asthma, and food allergies
- People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety disorders, or other debilitating psychiatric conditions
Guide dogs are probably the most familiar type of assistance dog. They’re for people who are blind or significantly visually impaired. They typically do things like safely lead their handler around indoors and outdoors, bring their partner to doorknobs and handles, open and close doors, keep the path clear of tripping hazards, retrieve items, pick up dropped items, lead to an empty seat, find help in an emergency, etc.
Hearing dogs help people who are deaf or severely hearing impaired. Their most important task is to alert their handler to important sounds. This generally includes things like their name being called, knocking or the doorbell, the alarm clock going off, fire alarms, timers for cooking and other purposes, the baby crying, honking, something falling or breaking, and so on.
This third category of assistance dog includes many different types. This isn’t a complete list, but here are the most common types and some introductory information about how these assistance dogs help people with disabilities.
- Mobility service dogs help people with mobility issues (wheelchair use, balance problems, etc.) get around safely. They can guide away from danger and help steady their handler, and they often perform tasks like carrying items for their partner in a vest, fetching and picking up items, opening and closing doors and drawers, turning lights on and off, and getting help in an emergency.
- Autism service dogs usually partner with children. They can help calm their handler down when he or she is overstimulated, provide pressure therapy, interrupt stimming behaviors, get a parent or other adult when needed, usher their partner away from a dangerous situation, foster social interaction, and more.
- Medical alert service dogs include various kinds, such as seizure dogs, diabetic alert dogs, allergen alert dogs, asthma alert dogs, and others. They’re trained to detect physiological changes (or allergens) that indicate an oncoming health crisis, such as low blood sugar levels or labored breathing, and to alert their handler. These assistance dogs can help in plenty of other ways too, like by responding to a crisis (e.g., holding down their partner until a seizure fully passes), retrieving medication, and getting help in an emergency.
- Psychiatric service dogs help people with debilitating psychiatric conditions, like PTSD, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and panic and other anxiety disorders. They provide emotional support on top of performing tasks that may include reminding about and bringing medication, guiding their handler safely when he or she is disoriented or confused, interrupting negative mental states or behaviors, offering balance or other physical support when needed, alerting their partner to important sounds they miss, administering soothing pressure, getting help in an emergency, and more.
Getting an Assistance Dog
If you believe that you or a loved one could benefit from partnering with an assistance dog, it’s not a decision to take lightly. It requires a commitment to training with the dog and providing many years of care (food, supplies, toys, exercise, attention and affection, veterinary care, etc.).
Acquiring an assistance dog isn’t cheap; it generally costs many thousands of dollars. However, there are many places to find financial assistance, including but not limited to the VA for disabled veterans, disability-specific charitable organizations, various government agencies and programs, and even many assistance dog providers themselves.
Start researching the type of assistance dog you’re interested in specifically. Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is an important resource, and only work with an assistance dog provider that is accredited by this agency (or by the International Guide Dog Federation if you’re seeking a guide dog).