What Does a Service Dog Do?

Lea Jaratz

Service dog for the blind

Sometimes when I see a person with a service dog by their side, I can’t help but be fascinated, wondering what that dog’s job might be. Sometimes it’s obvious. They’re pulling a wheelchair or assisting a vision-impaired person. But, sometimes, the service dog’s duties are much more expansive and meaningful than the typical person can imagine.

What is a service dog?

Before we look at all the jobs a service dog might perform, let’s review a bit about what a “service dog” is. These dogs, most often retrievers or German Shepherds (but can be any breed), are specially trained over a period of months to provide assistance to special needs individuals. They are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and must be permitted to travel and live with their owners. Costs associated with service dog ownership are also tax-deductible. So, while they do provide companionship, they’re so much more than an obedient pet.

Very few service dogs have just one job. The immensity of their training and skill is exemplified by a yellow Lab named Endal. His companion suffered from physical and cognitive issues, so Endal was trained to recognize hundreds of verbal and signed commands. He could do everything from bring his owner a razor, to push a phone button to call for emergency aid. His skills may have saved the life of his owner:

“Endal came again to national attention in a 2001 incident, when Allen was knocked out of his wheelchair by a passing car outside a hotel. Endal pulled Allen into the recovery position, retrieved his mobile phone from beneath the car, retrieved a blanket from the upturned wheelchair and covered him, alert barked at a nearby hotel for assistance with no result, and then ran to the hotel to obtain help.”

This example shows that Endal was cognizant, despite the trauma, to take six steps to provide comfort, safety, and aid to his owner. And that’s just a sampling of what a service dog can do.

Guide Dogs

Guide or Seeing Eye dogs have been utilized since the mid-16th century by those with vision impairments. Because dogs are color-blind, they are not about to fully navigate for their handlers, but for the most part, handlers report greater independence with a dog than a cane alone because the dog is able to select a path or route. Guide dogs may also provide aid by picking up dropped items or helping the handler with other disabilities.

Medical Alert Dogs

While large dogs are often finding jobs as guide dogs or physical-aid dogs, smaller dogs are finding themselves in a new assistance role: medical alert dog. Scientists and trainers are still sorting out why some dogs have the ability to detect changes in a person’s body chemistry, but these little canine heroes are saving lives. For example, a red Miniature Poodle named Eric can detect changes in blood pressure for his handler, a man with a high-risk heart condition. Eric will paw at his handler or press his head into the man’s chest in an effort to tell him to seek help.

Some dogs can also detect oncoming seizures, drops in blood sugar, or other biometric changes. They’ll notify their owners to give them ample time to get into a safe position, call for help, or retrieve medicine. Some dogs even lie under their owners to provide a soft cushion during an episode.

If I wasn’t a believer in the ability of medical alert dogs before, I sure was a convert when a tiny terrier shopping with his handler in a grocery store walked up to me, tapped my leg, and sat by my feet. His handler said quietly to me, “Is there a chance you’re pregnant?” The little dog knew when I was only a few weeks along.

Service Dogs for Individuals with Autism

Another growing trend in the service dog world is the pairing of service dogs to individuals with autism. These dogs provide calming support, anxiety relief, and other support measures to children and adults struggling with autism. For example, a 2-year-old lab named Lewis provides a calming example for his boy Elliot, helping him to sleep through the night. How about Pup-cake the Pitbull, who helps his handler manage anxiety and cope with frustrating social situations?

Dogs can help individuals with autism by providing physical pressure in a calming way, or by acting as a barrier between the individual and strangers in a crowded place. Their duties seem to be equal parts intuition and physical support.

Supporting Emotional Recovery

The things most handlers report about their relationship with a service dog is the level of companionship they provide. The dogs offer emotional support and independence, helping people to manage or even overcome depression, anxiety, and loneliness. They’re reliable, calm, and comforting in a way that only a loving and devoted dog can be.

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