September is National Service Dog Month
While only 1% of the 50 million people with disabilities use service dogs to assist them, there are now over 500,000 service dogs working in America.
What started as one fundraiser has transformed into an annual celebration honoring the extraordinary work service animals do every day to help the people in their care. Service dogs live to serve, protect and assist their handlers while inspiring confidence and providing companionship. They help their humans perform tasks, overcome disabilities, and live fuller lives. Each of these animals dedicates and often risks their lives to help their humans.
National Service Dog Month was first established in 2008 by actor and animal advocate Dick Van Patten after visiting Guide Dogs of the Desert in Palm Springs, California. Mr. Van Patten was so inspired by the capabilities of the Guide Dogs he launched a fundraising drive to benefit guide dog and service dog schools throughout the country.
The first service dogs were German Shepherds trained to assist WWI veterans suffering from blindness. Dorothy Eustis was the pioneer who created the program in Switzerland and then worked with an American named Morris Frank to start The Seeing Eye in Morristown New Jersey in 1927. The Seeing Eye graduated their first class of 2 teams in 1929 and over the past 90 years have graduated over 17,000 teams.
In 1975 Canine Companions for Independence began to train service dogs to address mobility issues. Guide dogs usually must master 12 to
14 commands to assist people with sight disabilities.
Service dogs trained to assist people with mobility issues need to learn over 40 commands.
There are important differences between service dogs and emotional support dogs.
There are 8 disabilities covered by the American Disabilities Act (ADA) that service dogs are qualified to assist: Sight, Hearing, Mobility, Autism, Seizures, Psychiatric, Allergies and Diabetes. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more life activities of an individual. An emotional support dog provides comfort and support to anxious individuals but is not required to perform specific tasks to address an ADA defined disability. Emotional support dogs do not have access to public or private places covered by the ADA.
Not all disabilities are visible
Today, service dogs have been trained to address an expansive range of physical and psychological disabilities. Recently there has been significant success training service dogs to address psychiatric conditions including PTSD. Service dogs trained to assist with these conditions can perform vital specific tasks to help a person manage their fear or anxiety caused by a previous traumatic experience.
Here are a few examples of tasks that service dogs perform to assist people with psychiatric disabilities:
- Crowd control – circle and provide safe space around the person to reduce anxiety in crowded social situations.
- Barking, jumping or becoming overly active to provide the person an excuse to leave a social situation that is beginning to be uncomfortable.
- Tactile stimulation – licking the face to break the spell of depression or paranoid thoughts that can immobilize the person.
- Body pressure – leaning softly against the person’s leg or lower body to calm anxiety.
- Turning on the lights when entering a dark room.
- Medication management – trained to be a medication clock reminder by barking at prescribed times. Some dogs are also trained to retrieve the medication and the beverage to facilitate taking the medication.
There has also been recent success in training dogs to alert or respond to seizures and monitor blood sugar levels for people with severe diabetes. It is the dog’s extraordinary sense of smell that allows them to detect oncoming seizures or major fluctuations with blood sugar levels. These dogs often carry medication backpacks to better enable the person to manage their condition.
To celebrate National Service Dog Month please consider making a generous donation to a reputable service dog training school. Here are a few of the most respected training school programs in the United States:
- Guide Dogs of the Desert
- The Seeing Eye
- Guide Dogs for the Blind
- Canine Companions for Independence
- Heartland Canines for Veterans
- Freedom Service Dogs
- Pets for Vets
- Paws with a Cause
- K9’s for Warriors