There are many reasons dogs are known as man’s best friend—they have long been a source of unwavering loyalty and friendship to their human confidantes. Most people are also familiar with the fact that they have a history of providing service to those with severe sight issues or blindness, and some are aware that more and more dogs are being trained to provide support to those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. But what many people may not realize is just how many services therapy and companion dogs are providing for people with all kinds of disabilities, both physical and mental in nature.
Although people love their service dogs and often consider them family members, these creatures have special rights in the eyes of the government way beyond that of a pet. A service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a dog that fundamentally aids in a disabled person’s daily life. This may include activities such as movement (walking or wheelchair guidance), reminding someone with a mental disability to take his or her medication, and alerting someone for help by barking when an owner has a seizure.
In addition to the laws that protect you and your service pooch, there are many other sources of support available. This includes the dozens of groups worldwide that train and then provide these special service dogs to those in need, many of which cover most or even all of the expenses that are associated with the care and education of these animals.
This guide is designed to open your eyes to the possibility of receiving physical and emotional assistance from a specially-trained canine companion, regardless of the classification of your disability or your financial picture. You will find information on some of the organizations that were founded with the sole purpose of giving four-legged help to those who need it most. Although the below organizations all offer full or partial funding for pairing you with your perfect pup, it’s important to check the details of each program for complete information on what you qualify for. Additionally, in this guide you will find resources for information on the rights you and your canine cohort have at home and in the workplace.
Your disability shouldn’t hold you back from living life to the fullest—and by partnering with a leader on a leash, you just may be able to find the confidence and peace of mind you’ve been seeking.
Programs for Those Suffering Blindness and Other Visual Impairments
Many of the organizations devoted to those who are blind have been around for decades and carry a proven track record of success. Others incorporate their own spin on highly-researched techniques into their relatively new programs. What they all have in common is a passion for establishing a greater sense of independence in those who cannot rely on their sight for many of their daily activities. The following resources provide helpful information on what some of these sight-specific programs have to offer.
The Seeing Eye has been providing guide dogs to the visually impaired since the 1920s, and was the first program of its kind in the United States. It offers weeks-long training to the recipient at the organization’s campus. There is a small fee requested of approved applicants – which is even further reduced for veterans – but most expenses are covered through donations, and the Seeing Eye has never denied a dog to someone based on his or her inability to pay.
Southeastern Guide Dogs is based out of Palmetto, Florida, and has academy-style training for their specially-bred guide dogs for the visually impaired. When these dogs are around two years old and have passed all the necessary training guidelines, they are matched and then trained with a forever companion for four weeks before going off to their new home. All of these services are free for the new owner.
Leader Dogs for the Blind matches those who are blind or both blind and deaf with a trained companion that fits his or her lifestyle free of charge. They also provide handler training for approved applicants, so that both canine and owner know the best ways to communicate and work together before going home.
The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation has been partnering those with severe sight impairments with trained German Shepherd guide dogs since 1960. These pups go through rigorous training in order to be deemed skilled enough to help lead someone with blindness through everyday life. There is no cost to applicants who receive a dog.
The Guide Dog Foundation has been pairing guide dogs with the blind since 1946. They typically train Labradors, Golden Retrievers or mixes of these two breeds for this role, and also offer Standard Poodles to those with allergy concerns. They also provide comprehensive training to handlers, all at no cost.
Guide Dogs for the Blind not only offers guide dogs to those who are visually impaired or blind, but also provides two-week training programs to handlers. These services are all free of charge, including transportation to and from the organization’s training headquarters. They also provide a Veterinary Financial Assistance Program for funding the care your guide dog may need throughout his or her lifetime.
Guide Dogs of America provides free guide dogs and handler training to those who are blind or visually impaired all over the United States and Canada. Trainers work with their canine students to give them the education they require to support people in their everyday lives, and then match them with their perfect life partner. Additionally, graduates of the training program – or those who receive dogs from the organization and complete the training with their pooch – also receiving ongoing support from the Graduate Services team.
Assistance for Veterans with Physical or Mental Disabilities
When soldiers return home from war, they often bring with them physical or mental wounds, and sometimes both. Many groups have rallied around our nation’s heroes to provide them service dogs tailor-trained to meet their needs, whether their scars are visible or buried beneath the surface. The following resources provide useful information on some of the programs available to veterans.
America’s VetDogs provides veterans with companion dogs that assist with many conditions ranging from physical disabilities to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They also provide trained dogs to medical centers where veterans are recovering from war injuries, and assist in physical as well as emotional healing.
Warrior Canine Connection uses their signature Canine Connection Therapy to help soldiers who have returned from war reintegrate themselves back into life at home. The dogs are trained by veterans, and then given to vets with disabilities whose quality of life will be vastly improved thanks to the support of their companion pet.
Although the name might imply a place for only the naughtiest of puppies, Puppies Behind Bars is actually an innovative program where service dogs are raised by prison inmates who have received special training on the upbringing of these pups. Once they have reached maturity and their training is complete, the dogs are then sent to live permanently with physically or emotionally wounded war veterans for companionship and service to their everyday needs, ranging from immobility to PTSD.
Although Angel Canines for Wounded Warriors (ACWW) doesn’t directly provide service dogs to veterans, the purpose of their program is to provide free air transport to centers that do. Through a partnership with American Airlines’ Veterans Initiative Program, vets with mental or physical disabilities resulting from their active service can rely on ACWW to get them to their forever companion free of charge.
Support Programs for Individuals with Physical or Mental Disabilities
Many organizations offer full or partial financial aid in acquiring a trained companion service dog. Although some cater to specific needs – such as those of the deaf or those who rely on the use of a wheelchair – many of these groups offer their services to a wide range of applicants with disabilities. Societies like Lions Club International and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks may also be able to offer you additional funding through your local chapter. The following resources provide information on some of the reputable groups whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people living with various disabilities.
Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is among the largest non-profit providers of service dogs for adults, children and veterans with mental and physical disabilities. Whether your disability interferes with your capability to perform daily tasks or makes you feel disadvantaged in social settings, CCI can match you with a trained canine companion that will offer you with more independence.
The Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC) offers financial assistance to individuals living with disabilities who would benefit from the services of a therapy dog. This group recognizes the many services canine companions can provide to humans, and supports the funding of many different kinds of service dogs ranging from physical to emotional support.
The Service Dogs for America/Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation Inc., based out of Jud, North Dakota, provides service dogs to people eight years of age and older that suit needs from seizures to mental and physical disabilities. Although there is a fee, the foundation offers scholarships and support in the fundraising efforts of applicants.
Paws with a Cause provides service and assistance dogs to people all over the country living with many kinds of disabilities. They have a unique “pay it forward” system – they provide people their perfect mate at no cost, but encourage recipients to create personal fundraising campaigns for future clients in need.
Summit Assistance Dogs provides service and therapy dogs to people of all ages whose quality of life will improve with canine companionship. This organization ensures that their pups will be worth the wait – they match recipients with dogs based on not only needs, but personality. They assist in fundraising efforts and grants so that everyone in need of a dog can receive their partner at little or no cost.
With a focus on children, 4 Paws for Ability provides life-changing comfort and security to kids living with conditions such as epilepsy, autism and Down Syndrome. This organization takes pride in offering its services to children that have been turned down by other agencies, and assists in fundraising to offset ownership costs.
Canine Assistants has been partnering dogs and people with disabilities since 1991. Individuals and families who would benefit from a companion dog are encouraged to apply, regardless of age or financial ability. Canine Assistants recognizes that many people most in need of a service dog don’t have it within their budget to pay for the costs associated with obtaining and caring for one, and works with sponsors to cover these costs.
The National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, provides dogs that support those with special needs based on physical and cognitive disabilities. They match those in need with the right dog based on a pup’s specialized training and temperament. The organization also works to offset costs by assisting approved applicants in their fundraising efforts.
Dogs for the Deaf helps many more individuals than just those with hearing impairments. This organization rescues shelter dogs at risk of being euthanized and trains them to be accomplices for those with physical and mental disabilities. It requires a small refundable deposit that will be returned to the applicant a year after being matched with his or her dog.
International Hearing Dog, Inc. has been providing those who are deaf or have severe hearing impairments with specially-trained “hearing dogs” since 1979. This unique breed of service dog is trained to alert owners to sounds they can’t hear themselves – such as a ringing telephone, doorbell or alarm clock – by teaching them to recognize special tones associated with these daily activities. This organization gives these animals at no cost to owners.
Service Dogs Inc. rescues homeless pets in shelters and no-kill facilities and trains them to be life-changing advocates for their hearing impaired, deaf or physically disabled human. These “strays turned stars” are identified as having the intelligence and easygoing attitude that is crucially characteristic of service dogs, and are placed with their owner at no cost to the individual.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind specializes in training guide dogs for those who are blind or severely visually impaired. However, not all of their canine candidates end up being a guide dog – many turn out to be better as companions for children with autism, and receive additional preparation for serving these special kids and their families. Both services are free to those in need.
Additional Valuable Resources
As research expands on dogs’ potential for providing physical and emotional assistance to humans, so do the programs and the information available to support it. The following resources provide additional program information on the unique benefits dogs can offer their two-legged pals, as well as helpful information on some of the rights the two of you are entitled to at home and at work.
Pets for Patriots helps bring together homeless pets and veterans to provide companionship. These animals are not trained to assist people who have disabilities. However, the love and emotional support adopting a shelter pet can provide a warrior can be extremely beneficial.
Dogs 4 Diabetics uniquely trains dogs to assist those who need additional support in managing their diabetes. These dogs serve as medical assistance dogs that utilize their acute sense of smell to identify when someone’s blood sugar levels have changed, and can be lifesaving in emergency situations. There is only a minimal fee responsibility from clients totaling about $150 for bringing a dog home.
Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is an association of the many not for profit organizations that train and provide service dogs to individuals, families and facilities such as senior living residences. It was created to regulate training practices for dogs and their handlers. This resource provides a wealth of information on local and national programs, as well as laws and regulations regarding your rights as someone who is assisted by a service dog.
The Humane Society of the United States, a longstanding animal advocacy organization, offers detailed information on how the Fair Housing Act protects the rights of both you and your service animal. This resource provides information on what measures to take if your landlord disputes your ability to live with your service dog, and what steps to take should you need to file a complaint about the situation.
If you have a service dog that helps care for you around the clock, both you and your companion are entitled to certain rights in the workplace. This resource from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides detailed information on your rights and responsibilities at work, as well as those of your employer.
For training info, check out this well-reviewed guide to training your own service dog. It’s best to get professional help in the training process, but you can reinforce it with this guide.
Companion service dogs can give not just unconditional love, but also life-changing physical and emotional support in the lives of people enduring difficulties from disabilities. There are now more programs than ever that can make this dream a reality for the people who need it most. Even more exciting is how many financial assistance opportunities exist to support you in finding your perfect critter companion. If you feel a service dog may help you in overcoming some of the obstacles of your disability, contact one of the many organizations just waiting to take your call and help guide you to a more worry-free, independent future.
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The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Top image via Flickr by Michael Beck