What Conditions Can Service Animals Help With?

Service animals are dogs who have been specially trained to help an individual with a disability. Currently, dogs are the only animals legally considered service animals. Service animals are protected under ADA regulations and may be brought into public places where other animals aren't allowed. It's important to note that service animals are not the same as emotional support animals, and emotional support animals are not protected under regulations in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals must meet specific legal requirements in their training and behavior. A service dog can help with several different disabilities including intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, and physical ones. The tasks and work they perform must have a direct relation to the disability of the individual who owns them. When service animals are in public, they're working and should not be distracted.

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Impaired Vision

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Service dogs can be used to help individuals with low vision or no vision to navigate through the world. These dogs are sometimes called seeing-eye dogs or guide dogs. A guide dog's main job is to help visually impaired and blind individuals navigate around different obstacles. Their human directs them by using the skills acquired during the dog's mobility training. With guide dogs, the human is often viewed as the pilot, while the dog is the machinery bringing them where they need to go. In the United States, guide dogs for the blind can be brought into public places that don't otherwise allow animals. One important note is because dogs are red-green colorblind, they can't interpret street signs for humans or let them know when a stoplight changes. The most common dog breed used for guide dogs is a Labrador Retriever. These dogs come in a good range of sizes, don't have many genetic health issues, and are both gentle and willing in temperament. They're also easy to keep and groom.

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Epilepsy

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A service dog that helps individuals with epilepsy is called a seizure dog. These dogs have received training on how to respond to seizures in epilepsy patients. The exact ways the dogs respond will vary depending on the person, their medical needs, and the type of seizures they usually have. Like all service animals, seizure dogs are protected by federal law in the United States, so they can be brought into public places. A service dog can bark and alert an individual's caregivers when they're having a seizure, activate an alarm, or move in a way that protects the person who is seizing. One way dogs provide protection is by lying next to the individual seizing to prevent them from injuring themselves. Some dogs can even be trained to move between the person and the floor to break their fall when they begin to seize, further helping to prevent injury. Certain dogs might be trained to use pre-programmed alarm devices by pushing buttons. It's important to note seizure dogs don't replace medical advice.

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Impaired Hearing

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Service dogs can be trained to help individuals who are deaf or hearing impaired. These dogs are colloquially called hearing dogs. Many accommodations exist to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing navigate the world to begin with. For example, there are oven timers with lights and alarm clocks that vibrate to shake the bed. However, service dogs can still help alert deaf and hearing-impaired individuals to sounds of danger. Some of the most common sounds service dogs are trained to respond to include a child's cry, telephone ringing, alarm clock, doorbell, or smoke alarm. When hearing dogs hear noises they've been trained to respond to, they will nudge or paw their handler to alert them about the sound. Then they will lead the person to the source of the sound. Individuals who are nonverbal can train their dog to respond to American Sign Language instead of verbal commands. If the person has additional medical conditions or disabilities, the dog can also be trained to help with these.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Service animals can help post-traumatic stress disorder patients manage the symptoms of their condition. One problem that sometimes arises, however, is a service animal for PTSD being mislabeled as an emotional support animal. Emotional support animals, while they are beneficial to many, don't have protections under the ADA and can't be brought into certain public spaces like licensed service animals. The difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is an emotional support dog only provides emotional support, while service dogs are specifically trained in the mitigation of disability. Psychiatric service dogs are just as legitimate and protected as any other service dog. Service dogs for post-traumatic stress disorder patients can perform a variety of different tasks. They may retrieve necessary medication, use tactile intervention when their handler is experiencing sensory overload, ground their handler during a flashback, guide their handler safely home when they have a dissociative episode, search the home for dangers to alleviate feelings of fear, and waking up the handler or turning on the lights if their handler is having a night terror or nightmare.

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Diabetes

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Diabetes is a very common and widely misunderstood condition, and it surprises some individuals to find out service dogs can help diabetes patients. But diabetes is also a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause permanent damage to multiple organ systems. A service dog for someone with diabetes is called a diabetic alert dog. These dogs are trained to detect high and low blood sugar in their handlers, and they warn their handlers before the situation becomes dangerous. Diabetic alert dogs have sensory training to detect the subtle changes in a human's scent that occur during hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia. In addition to alerting diabetes patients of high or low blood sugar problems, these dogs may be trained to perform additional tasks like retrieving medication or barking to alert passersby if their handler loses consciousness due to a dangerous blood sugar issue. Like other service animals, diabetic alert dogs are protected under the ADA in the United States.

Katherine MacAulay