Mobility limitations occur for many reasons. Genetic disorders, accidents, illness, chronic pain, aging, and short-term injuries can all change a person’s ability to stand, walk, and move around. Standard mobility aids include wheelchairs, crutches, and canes, all of which offer innumerable benefits for the individuals who need them. However, they are not the only forms of mobility assistance available.
Service dogs have much to offer to those with limited mobility. A large, sturdy service dog with a harness can help pull a person in a wheelchair, help an ambulatory partner walk up an incline, steady or brace a person as they move, and even transport heavy objects in a canine backpack. In addition to these physical tasks, service dogs are capable of all sorts of other forms of aid that may come in handy to a person with limited mobility.
This article outlines the history and research surrounding service dogs, the types of tasks they can perform, the training and certification process involved, and a list of resources for seeking your own service dog.
History and research supporting assistance dogs
Guide animals have been referred to in literature and art throughout history, but training schools for service animals first became popularized in Germany in the wake of World War I. Soon after, other countries such as Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States followed suit. Many of the service dogs who came out of these training programs were paired with veterans, particularly after World War II when rising demand led to many more training schools being opened around the country.
Decades of research support the use of service dogs in assisting individuals with physical disabilities. Manual wheelchair users can reduce upper limb effort with the help of a mobility assistance dog. Dogs are so useful, in fact, that one study referred to them as an “efficient assistive technology” for individuals with spinal cord injuries. The help they provide is more targeted and beneficial than any machine could supply. But the benefits are not limited to the purely physical.
Larry Schneider, a 45-year-old musician with Parkinson’s, depends on his mobility dog for all kinds of help: “Calamity Jane is living, breathing medicine. She helps me in my daily struggle and its related complications, like depression.” Brace dogs become an integral part of their owner’s lives, and through increasing mobility they boost all aspects of a person’s quality of life. Confidence and happiness can skyrocket when a person finds freedom and companionship via a mobility service dog.
Trained service animals are well-suited to easing the challenges of daily life. For Meredith Butenhoff, a 16-year-old with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome–a genetic condition that affects connective tissue and causes lightheadedness and low energy–her service dog, a Black Lab named Sami, is invaluable. He helps her balance, stand up, and achieve a level of independence she wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. If she falls, he can go for help. With Sami at her side, Meredith is able to be more active. Beyond that, the emotional support has changed her life.
There are even social benefits to having a service dog. Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability, says: “As a person who has a Mobility Assistance Dog partner. I have often said that Ben makes my disability ‘invisible.’ Before I had Ben, no one would approach me to start up a conversation and in stores people went out of their way to avoid me. Now, with Ben at my side, it could take me an hour just to get milk, because of everyone stopping me to inquire about Ben.” Dogs can bridge this social gap because they provide an automatic conversation starter.
Training and Certification for Service Dogs
The Foundation for Service Dog Support defines a service dog as “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities. It is the ability to perform observable tasks, on command, that distinguishes a service dog from an emotional support dog, therapy dog or other working dogs. Some examples of tasks are balance and support, retrieving dropped objects, fetching medications and summoning assistance when needed.”
Service dogs are full-time companions protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unlike emotional support dogs or therapy animals, they undergo rigorous training so that they can assist with everyday tasks. Training for a service dog is often in the range of $10,000-$20,000 and can take up to two years. Over this period of time, dogs are taught to be extremely responsive to their owners, to ignore any and all distractions, and to perform specific tasks that will help them to assist their human partner’s specific needs.
Service dogs can carry out complex tasks that help people with limited mobility gain independence. Dogs can call emergency services in a crisis, remind the owner to take their medication, retrieve items out of the owner’s reach, provide stability as the human partner moves, open doors or operate switches, and much more. They can retrieve, carry, tug, nudge, paw, brace, and perform other types of assistance. Creative trainers are constantly expanding the range of tasks they teach dogs to help people with various conditions, and they share their insights to help other trainers implement the unique processes they use.
Some breeds are better suited to service dog tasks than others, and dogs who do not acclimate well to training are dismissed from their programs. Only the dogs who are consistently able to perform all the required tasks for their service mission can become certified. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. However, people with disabilities have the right to personally train their service dogs, and do not have to go through outside organizations for the training process.
Service dogs are guaranteed right of entry into public establishments, like restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices, hotels, and other places of public accommodation–and none of these establishments are permitted to require certification or paperwork to prove a service dog’s legitimacy or status. However, a disruptive or threatening dog may be asked to leave the premises of a business, so it is paramount to provide ongoing training or to seek help if a service dog causes issues in public.
Your service animal becomes a part of your family, much like a pet. However, service animals are not pets; a “no pets” sign on a business cannot legally be applied to your service animal.
Resources for Finding a Care Dog
There are many resources for finding a companion service dog. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed service dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Humane Society chapter. Local trainers and care providers may be willing to work with you to help subsidize the acquisition of a service animal.
4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to place quality service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost use of limbs or hearing; help with animal rescue, and educate the public regarding use of service dogs in public places.
Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.
Heeling Allies privately trains Mental Health Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Skilled Companion Dogs that enrich the lives of qualified individuals living with certain psychological, neurological and developmental impairments.
Pawsitivity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as service dogs.
Service Dogs for America is a non-profit organization that enhances and empowers the lives of individuals with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
Find additional therapy dog organizations on the American Kennel Club’s extensive list of partners, and a list of resources about assistance dogs from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Assistance Dogs International offers a program search to help people around the world find service dog organizations they can work with.