Service animals come in all shapes and sizes, species and breeds. Most commonly known as guide dogs for the visually impaired, that is only a small portion of service animals. There are many other jobs service animals can do for their human charges. Depending upon whether specialized training is needed or not, the duties service animals provide are quite varied.
Guide dogs and guide miniature horses help those who are visually impaired and who have mobility issues. Miniature horses is the new trend in guide animals and aren’t commonly seen yet. Guide dogs are usually larger breed animals that are fitted with a special harness and/or leads to assist people with their daily lives. They help those in wheelchairs and who use walkers. They are trained to retrieve items that are out of their handler’s reach.
Dementia is the primary of symptom of Alzheimer’s. Those who have Alzheimer’s tend to wander and the service dogs help to keep this from happening. Although any dog, regardless of size or breed, can be trained as an Alzheimer’s dog, herding breeds are usually used. Because of their centuries of breeding, these dogs “herd” the person they are assisting, keeping them where they belong. They are also trained to alert others their owner is wandering and to stay with their person until help arrives. Many are trained to use the telephone, retrieve items, and operate appliance.
There is a large and varied group of “sniffing dogs.” These animals are trained to sniff for medical conditions and problems and to alert others to them. Any breed of dog can be trained to do this. Cats and ferrets are also being tested to see if they are as effective at sniffing as dogs. These dogs can smell cancer, high and/or low blood sugar, the onset of seizures as well as many other conditions.
Any type of domesticated animal, usually dogs and cats though, can be trained as therapy animals. These animals are trained to befriend those with emotional and psychological disabilities. They can also be used to visit nursing homes, safe houses for abused/neglected adults and children, hospitals and homeless shelters. Many animals that were previously in animal shelters/rescues are used for this type of service. Horses are now being used to help people with special needs, especially children with physical and emotional conditions.
Hearing impaired animals, usually dogs, are trained to alert their charges of the telephone, doorbells, emergency alarms (smoke detectors, security alarms, etc.) and children crying. Any breed of dog can be trained to assist the hearing impaired. Birds can also be used to assist the hearing impaired.
Law enforcement animals also fall under the umbrella of service animals. Police dogs, police horses, and other dogs (as well as cats and ferrets) are used to sniff for drugs, bombs, and missing persons and escapees are service animals as well. As the threat of terrorism grows, these animals are used in many ways to stop attacks.
Companion animals are growing in popularity among people with special needs. Much like therapy animals, these dogs (sometimes cats, ferrets and birds) are trained to assist people with a wide variety of conditions and disabilities. These animals can perform vast number of duties including answering the telephone, sorting laundry by color and texture, and even using some appliances (pushing buttons and turning knobs for ovens, microwaves, and washing machines and dryers, etc.). Companion animals are usually trained as guide dogs, therapy dogs, and/or sniffing dogs.
There are many misconceptions about service animals. They do not have to be a purebred animal. Many mixed breeds are used because they are not limited by their breeding to perform only certain tasks. Specialized training is not always required for therapy and companion animals. Any time a doctor prescribes a therapy or companion animal, whatever animal the patient chooses can fit the prescription. If the doctor prescribes a guide dog or sniffing dog, specialized training is necessary. Legally, those in need of service animals can not be discriminated, if they are disabled. Unfortunately, this happens frequently. Service animals can be used by those who are not classified as “disabled,” yet still need assistance with certain tasks. Businesses are not allowed to ask questions regarding the animal’s duties or the handler’s needs. They can not ask for verification of the need for a service animal. In fact, the only legal question they can ask is if the animal is a service animal. Housing is a bit of a problem, regardless of the law. In some areas, only owners that have a certain number of rental properties are required to allow service animals.
My husband has a service animal, Maisie. We got her from a local animal rescue. She is a terrier/dachshund mix and weighs around six pounds. She is certified as a therapy animal and a companion animal. She is trained to assist my husband with physical therapy, retrieving items, as well as answering the phone, sorting laundry and using certain appliances. She is also trained to help him deal with the depression his various medical conditions have caused. She does not wear a special vest or collar. In fact, due to her training, she is not even required to have a leash.