It used to be that service dogs were synonymous with seeing-eye or guide dogs. Today, service dogs take on a wide assortment of tasks that help people with disabilities, and these dogs have very specialized skills, including:
Guiding the blind
Alerting the deaf
Helping people in wheelchairs
Protecting seizure victims
Calming those with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack
Reminding cognitively or emotionally challenged owners to take medications
These are working dogs, not pets. To be a service dog, the animal must be trained to ameliorate the quality of life of a person with a disability. A typical service dog has an even temperament, is easy to train and reliably responds to commands. Other important traits include good health and stamina. There are numerous organizations that breed and train service dogs. The most popular service dog breeds include Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers, but almost any breed or mix might make a good service dog.
Service dogs should not be confused with therapy, comfort or emotional support dogs, which provide comfort and affection to people in a variety of situations, but are not trained to frequently enable daily tasks for their master.
A Variety of Tasks
Service animals are capable of performing one or more specific tasks, depending on the needs of the owner. Some typical tasks include:
Pulling people who are in wheelchairs
Protecting and guiding blind owners as they cross streets
Providing balance to unsteady owners
Flipping light switches
Alerting owners to alarms, noises and phone calls
Picking up or fetching items
Warning diabetics of impending glucose shock
Touching owners having an anxiety attack
Protecting owners from suspicious strangers
Laws allow service dogs to accompany their owners in most locations, including airplanes, restaurants, hospitals and public areas where pets are not otherwise allowed. While working in public, service dogs often wear ID tags, badges and special harnesses, vests or jackets that may include handles or other features. The vests usually warn the public not to pet or interfere with the service dog. Municipalities may require service dogs to be licensed. When “off duty,” service dogs should be allowed to play, relax and receive loving attention.
All dogs should get proper veterinary care, and this is an imperative for service dogs, because the well-being of their owners depends on their own well-being. Professional organizations that breed and train service dogs provide owners with guidelines for veterinary care. Service dogs should be fed a nutritionally complete diet that will keep them at their optimal weight. They should receive regular checkups, all required vaccinations and parasite preventatives, and regular bathing/grooming. When veterinary care costs too much, states and organizations such as the Humane Society offer support, including discounted pet health insurance. Many veterinary practices and animal hospitals offer discounted care for service animals. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers free pet health insurance to veterans with service dogs. This insurance covers virtually all of the dog’s medical costs.
Many national, state and local organizations belong to the service dog community. Here are some prominent ones:
The Seeing Eye is a philanthropy that provides trained service dogs to the visually handicapped. It trains dogs and their owners how to care for each other.
It can be a hard decision to retire a service dog, as it breaks up a strong emotional relationship that has lasted for years. There is also the anxiety of working with a replacement dog. It’s not always clear when a service dog should be retired, as each situation is unique. The best approach involves:
Checking with your veterinarian to see if the dog is starting to show signs of aging or decline. Health issues such as cataracts, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, back or joint pain, kidney problems, weight gain, hearing loss and other age-related ailments are grounds for retirement.
Signs that your dog is not as happy, energetic or excited about its work. It might be that it sleeps more, has trouble keeping up on walks, and has stopped wagging its tail.
Your dog isn’t responding to cues or completing tasks.
Some service dog programs allow the dogs to remain as pets with their owners after retirement, while other programs required the dog be returned to the handler. The retired dog can also be rehomed with another family or dog raiser.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.