When Ben Ownby heads to the pool, he has a furry associate in tow: Dakota the dog, who actually follows Ben everywhere, including class and social events. Dakota’s not there for play, but to provide Ben with a vital service. He’s a diabetic alert dog who can tell when Ben’s blood sugar is too low or too high, and signals Ben to tell him to check his levels and take appropriate measures to get them under control. Ben, a type 1 diabetic, can’t rely on an insulin pump and monitor to help him manage his condition because of adhesive allergies, so he depends on Dakota to keep his diabetes at bay.
Meet the new breed of assistance animal. While you might think of guide dogs for blind and visually impaired people when you hear the term “assistance animal,” animals can actually be trained to perform a wide variety of tasks for their disabled partners, and the vast majority of assistance animals are dogs. (In fact, recently revised guidelines legally limit service animals to dogs and trained miniature horses.) These animals help their partners achieve independence, and come to play an important role in their lives.
Dakota is an example of a diabetic alert dog, a type of service animal that’s becoming more common as people take advantage of the fact that dogs can smell changes in blood sugar level. Dogs aren’t the only animals that can do this; Elijah the cat is equally capable of noticing changes in blood sugar levels and signaling them to his human. Service dogs can also help people with epilepsy and other seizure conditions, where a seizure dog can detect early warning signs of a seizure and provide assistance that can include fetching medication, pressing a button to summon assistance, rousing handlers and “blocking,” physically obstructing their handlers so they don’t accidentally fall down or enter a dangerous area (like the street).
Hearing dogs, meanwhile, help D/deaf and hard of hearing people by alerting them to audible cues in the environment that they can’t hear. Julia, for example, alerts her partner Janet to the doorbell, the teakettle, the alarm and other noises around the house so Janet can respond. Junior helps her partner Tanya by letting her know when the baby or another one of the children needs assistance, keeping an “ear,” so to speak, on the kids so Tanya knows they’re safe.
Psychiatric service dogs can help their handlers by performing a wide variety of tasks that help them manage their disabilities. These tasks are highly specialized, depending on the handler’s needs; for example, a PTSD dog might run through a home or room to “clear” it, checking for hazards, before her partner enters. PTSD dogs can also guide medical responders to a handler in crisis, bring medications, or keep handlers centered when they’re in a stressed state. Other psychiatric service dogs can remind handlers about medications, interrupt self-harming behaviors and perform related actions.
Mobility dogs can help stabilize people who have trouble walking independently, or pull wheelchairs for handlers who need assistance. Other assistance dogs fetch water bottles and other supplies on command to help their handlers, and can also perform tasks like turning lights on and off, opening doors, and more.
In all cases, service animals perform specific tasks to help a person with a disability, offering a service that the disabled person couldn’t perform independently. They aren’t pets, therapy animals, or emotional support animals, but working animals on the job, helping their owners retain independence and build confidence. The expansion of service animal handling and training to include a wide variety of disabilities in recent years has radically changed the scope of the landscape for disabled people.
It’s also created some issues, however. As service animals get more prominent, increased confusion about what they do and legal requirements when it comes to accommodating them has arisen. Legally, service animals must be accommodated as long as they are not disruptive (i.e. poorly-trained), and while their handlers can be asked about which tasks the animal performs, they are not required to provide documentation or discuss the nature of their disabilities. Service animals don’t need to be registered as such, and they aren’t required to wear special gear, although most do, simply to alert people to the fact that they’re on the job.
With more people using service animals, members of the public sometimes have misconceptions about their role. As working animals, they aren’t the same as pets and cannot be treated in the same way; handlers can’t be denied service for working with a service animal, for example, although a business can choose to turn away pets.
And service dogs aren’t for everyone. Some disabled people don’t need their services, and in some cases, this can become a source of tension, with dispute over whether a service dog is “really” needed that sometimes spills over into the courts. This has been especially common with autism service dogs, which some people argue can help autism children manage classroom environments, while others fear they are being used unnecessarily and promoted by for-profit organizations that might be exploiting concerned families. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in the middle: some autistic children and adults undoubtedly benefit from having service dogs, while others do not, but still might enjoy the companionship of an animal friend, even if that animal doesn’t perform specific tasks.
People who encounter service dogs should remember that they are working and shouldn’t be distracted. Distractions can include pointing and staring, trying to interact with the dog (trust us, service dogs get plenty of snuggles when they’re off-duty!), or attempting to engage with the handler about the dog. In addition to being annoying for handlers who rapidly tire of such encounters, this can also break the dog’s focus, potentially endangering the handler.
The best thing you can do to support a service animal and her handler is ignore her, unless specifically invited to do otherwise, or unless you see a problem. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you see someone discriminating against a service animal and her handler: they have a legal right to access all the same places you do!
Photo credit: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta