What are assistance dogs? The term “assistance dog” is used to refer to what most people call “service dogs.” There are many different types of assistance dogs, which are all trained for different purposes! This includes service dogs, who help individuals with a physical disability, chronic illness, or neurological disorder; guide dogs, who help the blind and visually impaired; and hearing dogs, who help those with hearing loss.
Who uses assistance dogs? Assistance dogs can be trained to help people with a variety of disabilities and disorders. This includes people who have PTSD, are on the autism spectrum, suffer from seizures, have diabetes, and more. Assistance dogs can also be trained to go into medical and psychiatric hospitals and facilities to help the psychological health of patients (these are sometimes called “facility dogs”).
What do assistance dogs do? Assistance dogs are trained for a variety of tasks, from object retrieval to detecting seizures. They can open/close doors, turn lights on or off, bark to get help, and more! Assistance dogs learn how to interact with users in a wheelchair, how to provide balance assistance, and how to override commands (for example, if a blind owner tells the dog to guide them forward but the dog sees a car coming, they will not go forward. Assistance dogs are also an invaluably therapeutic presence for people with chronic illnesses, debilitating disabilities, or PTSD.
How do you train an assistance dog? Assistance dog training often begins at birth! Puppies undergo stress control and other conditioning from the day they are born to acclimate them to being in our world. Then, puppies are typically fostered out to families for 12-18 months under the guidance of a specialized trainer. There, puppies learn simple commands, are potty trained and learn basic obedience. Then, puppies are returned to the training organization, where they are specifically trained for a certain type of disability. This training is intensive, and includes obstacle avoidance, directed guiding, intelligent disobedience, public access training, and more. Typically, the dog is also introduced to its new owner over the course of a few weeks or months.
How long does training take? It depends on what the dog is training for, but typically after the puppy is returned to the trainers the remainder of training takes about a year.
Can assistance dogs go anywhere with their owner? Yes! ADA guarantees the right of a person with a qualifying disability to always be accompanied by their assistance animal, and the Fair Housing Act lets assistance animals in housing that would otherwise not allow pets for no additional charge.
What do I do if I see an assistance dog? Do not assume that you can pet the dog! Don’t offer the dog food, and ask permission from its owner before interacting at all with the dog. The dog’s number one priority has to be its owner, and doing anything distracting (such as calling the dog, petting it, etc.) can endanger the handler. Many handlers are happy to stop and answer questions about their dog, but keep in mind that these are people with lives who have things to do.
How can I get an assistance dog? Start by doing some research into assistance dog training programs in your area. Programs such as paws4people, Paws With a Cause, and Canine Companions for Independence often provide assistance dogs free of charge to applicants. Check out Assistance Dogs International to search for programs in your area!