I have enjoyed a career working with many types of dogs. Everything from 100-pound German Shepherds, to 20-pound terrier mixes. I trained and used these dogs to find all types of materials and perform many arduous tasks. Finding explosives, bed bugs, keys or medication. Walking dozens of miles and navigating difficult terrain. If it emits an odor, a dog can sniff it out. If they are physically able, they can be trained to perform almost any task. It takes a trainer who knows where the dog is naturally talented.
When I started placing dogs to veterans with disabilities, I recognized that common disability mitigating tasks, had many versatile uses. Someone in a wheelchair will benefit from a dog trained to find and retrieve their cell phone. A veteran with TBI or memory loss could benefit from the same dog, performing the same task. What makes this so important? It demonstrates that the task a dog performs is only relevant to the current need of the handler. If the handler benefits from a dog that retrieves his cell phone, their disability or the type of service dog become
irrelevant. The key is finding a dog that can perform three or more disability mitigating tasks.
Service dogs must perform a minimum of three (3) disability mitigating tasks related to their handler’s needs. Commonly referred to as ‘tasks’, these skills or abilities are trained and not a naturally occurring behavior. Service dogs are prescribed by a medical professional as part of a disabled person’s treatment plan. Typically, the tasks performed are related to the current or future needs of the handler. This means that a service dog may not be working, but they are always prepared to perform when their handler needs. No matter the specialty, all service dogs must be treated equally. The community should be involved with the success of all service dogs, by remaining educated on the many positive aspects and efficient uses of service dogs.
Guide dogs assist their handler with navigating public & private settings. Their handler may rely solely on their guidance from sunrise to sunset. Avoiding curbs, obstacles, and potential hazards. They are also trained to retrieve or find objects (cellphone, keys) or stop or assist at crosswalks or while using public transportation. Many guide dogs are strictly trained to ignore an entire host of stimulus and perform to a rigorous schedule.
Hearing dogs assist the deaf or hard of hearing by alerting to certain sounds or situations. Hearing dogs can be trained to locate their handler and lead them towards or away from certain sounds. Some hearing dogs assist only within the home; alerting to common household sounds: doorbell, smoke alarm, a ringing phone or a crying baby. Others provide protective tasks in public, notifying their handler of an approaching car engine, the handler’s name being called or fire alarms.
Medical response(alert) dogs: These dogs are trained to respond to a medical event such as an epileptic seizure or diabetes-related fluctuations in blood sugar. These dogs may also remove dangerous objects during a seizure, or alert family members in the event of a medical emergency. Some are trained to remain with the handler until the seizure ends or the person becomes coherent. Additional tasks may include retrieving medical equipment or assisting with standing/sitting.
Psychiatric alert dogs: Sometimes categorized with Medical Response Dogs, these dogs are specially trained to facilitate or interrupt certain behaviors related to PTSD, anxiety depression, autism or other behavioral health disorders. These dogs are trained to perform various tasks for the unique needs of their handlers. Assisting with medication reminders and locating medical items (medicine, Epi-pen, water). Some are trained to wake or disrupt night terrors. They may provide ‘deep muscle stimulation’ to ease body pain or tremors. Many are trained to assist their handler in social situations. Performing basic greetings or providing a buffer from a crowd.
Mobility dogs: These are specially trained to assist with ambulation or mobility limitations. Typically large breed dogs, mobility service dogs can retrieve wheelchairs, prosthetics or canes. The dogs may pick up or deliver items in a shopping situation, help exchange credit cards, receipts or currency. Many can carry objects or hold bags to allow the handler to remain standing, balanced or moving. Small-breed dogs can be trained to push buttons or assist their handler in removing items of clothing (socks, shoes, jacket).
Mental Health-Mobility Dog: This is a term I use in reference to handlers with multiple disabilities or a disability that is difficult to manage with medication. I am typically training service dogs for veterans with a combination of challenges related to their disabilities. Many of our injured veterans suffer from physical and mental challenges. These service dogs are trained to locate a misplaced object, pick up or retrieve medical equipment, interrupt an emotional outburst. When a stranger encounters a service dog in public, their first thought should be “That’s a well-behaved dog.” This also means that you may have no visual idea to the type of service dog or the tasks they perform for their handler. This can also be a challenge with business owners when a service dog team enters their establishment. They may unintentionally judge the legitimacy of the service dog if the handler’s disability is not obvious. In all cases, never challenge the validity of a service dog team if the service dog is controlled and unobtrusive. This dog could be trained to ensure their handler remembers their medication or is aware of surrounding hazards. Many tasks are specific to locations or situations, and some dogs are trained to provide life-saving support in the event of an emergency.
Ultimately, throughout the life of a service dog, they will provide a multitude of tasks and activities for their handler to include learning new ways to help manage the owner’s disability in the following ways:
• Provide motivation and routine
• Facilitate healthy behavior and exercise
• Provide confidence and independence
• Facilitate tasks commonly completed by a caregiver
• Eliminate the need for an “Escape Plan” while in a public setting
Regardless of the specialty or appearance, every service dog should be treated the same. Every service dog team should be respected. The moment we categorize service dogs, we diminish their importance by placing an unnecessary label for the handler’s disability. When a disabled person is judged based on their service dog type, this can inadvertently isolate the handler which defeats the purpose altogether.
I recommend visiting the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans’ website and look to an organization who is their partner member. These partner members must meet their national training standard and utilize procedures that all member organizations follow, which is also listed on their website: www.servicedogs4vets.org.