About The Author: My name is Katie, I am 29 years old, disabled, and have multiple chronic and terminal health issues. I wanted to share some of the ways that service dogs can help individuals with disabilities as well as some important facts to know before getting one yourself.
What Is A Service Dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Some examples they provide include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and calming a person during an anxiety attack.
The ADA clearly states that service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Why I Chose To Get A Service Dog
Shown on the left is my service dog Rosie, who is a 2.5-year-old Labrador and Pointer mix (Weimaraner and Vizsla). Her tasks include cardiac alert, light mobility, and retrieval tasks! She is owner trained and closely followed by her vet, private trainer, and vet tech to ensure her well-being and ability to safely keep working at what she does best.
I chose to pursue getting a service dog when multiple physicians recommended the benefits that a service dog can have on your mental and physical health. Aside from being a great help with my disability and always making me feel safe in case of an emergency, she also makes a great companion. She loves spending time with me and cuddling up on the bed or couch, as long as she is with me she is one happy girl. She’s the perfect definition of a “grey ghost" that’s always following me around and half of the time I don’t even hear her!
What Are The Benefits Of Having A Service Dog?
- Aiding Mobility: Service dogs can provide physical support to those with limited mobility such as wheelchair users. Mobility assistance dogs can be trained to do tasks such as open doors, turn light switches on and off, fetch objects for their owners, pay cashiers, and press elevator buttons.
- Staying Constantly Alert: Service dogs can be trained to help alert people when they are experiencing a medical crisis. For example, a person with epilepsy having a seizure or a person with dysautonomia experiencing a syncopal episode (feeling of faintness and loss of consciousness). This can allow the owner to be prepared before an episode and get to a safe environment such as a soft surface or on the floor, in order to help prevent injury. During or after the episode, the dog can also seek additional help if needed.
- Assisting With Everyday Tasks: Individuals with disabilities that cause fatigue, pain, trouble walking, or limited mobility can highly benefit from having a service dog. Service dogs can help people regain balance, prevent them from falling, fetch medications, and carry items such as groceries if the owner is too weak to move or hold them.
- Providing Companionship: Not only do service dogs provide physical support, but they are also great for providing emotional support. Service dogs act as loyal companions which can help ease feelings of loneliness and provide a sense of security and consistent care. As they say, dogs are man's best friend! Studies have also shown that service dogs provide health benefits and can increase fitness, lower stress, and improve happiness.
- Allowing Increased Independence: Service dogs allow people living with chronic illness and/or disability to experience a greater sense of freedom and independence. Having a service dog means you have to rely less on other humans to help with everyday tasks, which can allow you to feel restricted or dependent on others. Instead, you can transfer your needs to your service dog, who is constantly ready and available to assist you.
Important Things To Keep In Mind About Service Dogs
- Choose The Right Breed: It’s KEY to do your research before getting a service dog, specifically on what breeds will help mitigate your individual needs. For instance, a 15 pound Jack Russell terrier should never be used for mobility tasks whereas a Labrador is more appropriate than a small dog for mobility. Also, dogs need to have a certain temperament and drive in order to be a service dog. Before choosing a dog, be sure to test out their temperament, alertness, and everyday behaviors. I looked at 7 different litters before choosing my service dog!
- Correct Training Is Essential: Service dogs need to be well-trained and highly obedient as they should be constantly alert and ready to help. If service dogs are not well trained as puppies, they can begin showing aggressive behavior such as chewing, destructive behaviors, aggression towards other dogs, etc. If this behavior is not corrected during the training phases while the dog is still young, it will be twice as difficult to fix later on. Success rates for effective training are not as high if it occurs later in life and can lead to your service dog being pulled from service work.
- Costs Add Up: Another thing to keep in mind is the financial costs of having a service dog. They require extra vaccines, vet care, upkeep, and training, which can be quite costly. Be sure to talk with your doctors and care team to decide if it's a financial cost that makes sense for you. There are also some financial assistance programs available to help with the purchase of a service dog.
- Traveling Can Get Complicated: Some airlines have extra requirements and documents such as a health certificate, vaccine list, and physicians and vet notes stating that your dog is a service dog. Usually, letters signed by doctors are valid for 1 calendar year, so be sure all of your paperwork is up to date before traveling with your service dog.
Refer To State And Federal Guidelines
The ADA very specifically outlines what qualifies as a service animal in the USA. Currently, only dogs and miniature horses are legally recognized as service animals. Emotional support animals are not protected under federal law and are not task trained to help mitigate one's disability! So next time you see an iguana, chicken, hedgehog, bunny or cat, rest assured it is not a service animal. While they can be great for providing emotional support, they are not qualified to be trained service animals.
If you see someone flashing a fancy service animal ID tag, 9/10 times it has no legal significance. It’s easy for many people to go on eBay or Amazon and purchase a vest tag and ID for their dogs, but this does not mean they are professionally trained and registered service dogs. Always refer to the federal guidelines (ADA, FHA, ACAA), state, and local laws!
I hope my experience as well as the information outlined helps current and potential future service dog owners. You can connect with us on Instagram at @service_dog_rosie. Love, Katie and Rosie!