The Joy of Service Dogs
August 14, 2017
Dogs have an amazingly innate ability to bridge the animal and human worlds. Just living with our canine friends warms our hearts with play and companionship. Witness the many movies that have carried with each generation like Lassie, Old Yeller, Snow Dogs, Max and Marley and Me. Beyond friendship, many dogs are able to use their smarts, loyalty, and devotion for a higher purpose.
Humans and dogs have worked together hunting, herding, and tracking for thousands of years. In modern times we have continued to utilize smart, highly trained dogs to assist us with various tasks.
An ever increasing number of dogs work with disabled Americans to expand their range of abilities and improve life's quality. To do so, service dogs are legally allowed to accompany and assist their disabled owners to perform specific tasks they are trained to do.
Service dogs include guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs, medical response dogs, and some mental health disability assistance dogs such as autism and PTSD dogs.
Guide dogs are trained to guide their owners with visual problems and blindness safely through public areas including busy streets, traffic, and sidewalk intersections. Hearing dogs alert their hard of hearing owners to sounds such as fire alarms, alarm buzzers and clocks, door knocks and doorbells, and name calls. Mobility assistance dogs help open doors, flick switches, and pick up things their owners cannot do because of nerve and muscle impairments. Medical response dogs alert their owner to impending seizures, low blood sugar levels, or allergens. The medical response dogs stay with their owners until help arrives.
Autism dogs keep autistic children from bolting unsafely away, reduce their anxiety, encourage communication skills, and track them if they get lost. PTSD dogs help provide safe space and intervention when their owner starts to have incapacitating stress responses. Witnessing the bond between a service dog and an owner helps foster empathy in those around them.
Other types of working dogs include program assistance dogs and therapy dogs. Program assistance dogs are trained to work with professionals who work with people that are disabled. The dogs help patients and clients who visit the professionals by reducing anxiety and encouraging them to participate more fully in their therapy, rehabilitation, or classroom work. These dogs work with doctors, chiropractors, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and teachers. If their owners are not disabled then the dog is only legally allowed to go to the place of work with his owner/professional. Some schools are fortunate enough to have a program assistance dog making the special needs class a place of comfort for the children.
Therapy dogs are dogs trained in obedience and proper social behavior to go visit nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals to provide cheer and companionship visits to residents of those facilities.
We recently lost our beloved program assistance dog, Ginger, who worked here at Salisbury Pediatric Associates. She was also my hearing dog and was trained as an autism dog while also doing therapy dog visits. Ginger acted as an external ear for me by helping me hear overhead pages. She helped countless children feel less anxious about their visits and shots. Some children even overcame their fear of dogs because they felt Ginger's calm sweetness gave them courage.
I miss her nudges and lunchtime walks very much, but I imagine her happily connecting with old and new friends in Dog Heaven.