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Animals and Your Health: Service Dogs

For thousands of years, people have relied on dogs for hunting, companionship, survival, and protection. But in the last century, people have called upon canines to aid those coping with a number of diseases. Formally trained dogs have guided blind Americans since 1929. Now, dogs aid those with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. But, perhaps the greatest gift these animals can give their owners is renewed independence and the improved ability to live and work in our modern world.

What Service Dogs Can Do

Many organizations around the world train dogs to assist people with a wide assortment of disabilities. Some animals pull wheelchairs. Some help their owners get out of bed or into and out of the tub. Others help their owners to maintain balance and coordination when walking and doing other activities. Service dogs have even learned personalized skills like flipping light switches, picking up items, carrying supplies, and opening and closing doors.
Many people with disabilities or illnesses can obtain greater independence with the help of service animals. Below are just a few examples of what service dogs can potentially do:
  • Alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of others or to important sounds (eg, sirens and alarms, a person's name being called, traffic, a child crying)
  • Provide help with mobility (eg, retrieve objects, help a person to balance while walking, carry items in backpacks, lead people who have visual impairments around obstacles)
  • Provide stress relief for people with mental or emotional disabilities
  • Provide protection during a seizure and helping someone become reoriented and mobile after the seizures
  • Possibly alert people, and their caregivers of oncoming seizures, giving time to stop activities and assume safe positions before seizures occur

Thinking About a Service Dog?

The decision to bring a service dog into your family can be a big one, and it should not be entered into lightly. Service dogs undergo extensive training at nonprofit programs where they master watching out for their human's special needs and learn how to take corrective measures. A trainer assesses each dog's natural abilities and tendencies, builds on those strengths, trains the dog to meet the specific needs of its human partner, and teaches the person how to behave with the dog and what commands and reinforcements to use.
The Delta Society provides information about service animals and consumer tips for those considering a dog. Some of the factors to consider include:
  • Cost—Training can run as high as $20,000, but funding possibilities exist.
  • Care—Just like any dog, service animals require veterinary attention, feeding, water, walks, and play time.
  • Love for animals—Dogs are not for everyone, especially those afraid of animals or anyone unwilling to accept care responsibilities.

RESOURCES

The American Veterinary Medical Association http://www.avma.org/

Delta Society http://www.deltasociety.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES

C.O.P.E. Dogs http://www.copedogs.org/

National Service Dogs http://www.nsd.on.ca/

References

About service dogs. Assistance Dogs International, Inc. website. Available at: http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/service.php. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Historical timeline. The Seeing Eye website. Available at: http://www.seeingeye.org/aboutus/default.aspx?M%5FID=472. Accessed September 4, 2012.

History of dog guides. Companion Club website. Available at: http://www.muhlenberg.edu/studorgs/companion/ccfaqhistory.html. Accessed September 4, 2012.

Sachs-Ericsson N, Hansen NK, Fitzgerald S. Benefits of assistance dogs: a review. Rehabilitation Psychology . 2002;47:251-277.

Service Dog Central. How much does it cost to train a guide dog? Service Dog Centeral website. Available at: http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/410. Published August 9, 2009. Accessed September 4, 2012. .

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