A family pet provides unconditional love. A service dog provides unconditional love and helps their partner overcome obstacles that impede their ability to perform certain tasks.
Most are aware of guide dogs for the blind. However, there are service dogs that provide many other types of assistance. There are hearing dogs, mobility dogs, response dogs, and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) to name a few. Service dog training qualifies them to enter grocery stores, restaurants, planes, or basically any establishment their partner needs to enter.
The non-profit organization, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), was started in 1942. They formed to help World War II servicemen who had been blinded in battle. Blondie, a German Shepherd, was the first graduate of the program and was paired with Sgt. Leonard Foulk. Until 2007, German Shepherd dogs were the primary breed trained as guide dogs.
Today GDB has a healthy breeding program of Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Lab/Golden crosses. They demonstrate a willingness to work, a high desire to please, intelligence and have an easy to work with temperament. Puppies are trained for 13 to 15 months before being matched with a compatible legally blind person who is suited to work with a dog.
Types of Service Dogs
Hearing dogs are trained to alert their hard of hearing partner to a variety of sounds. These include the doorbell, door knock, timers, smoke alarms, horns, emergency vehicles, a baby crying, and a host of other sounds. We know of no specific gene that can be bred for to encourage a good hearing dog. Nevertheless, some of the best candidates are rescue dogs or dogs that come from shelters. Obedience training is followed by three to six months of sound response work before being matched with a hearing impaired partner.
Some dogs are trained to assist people with physical impairments that affect their mobility. They can help a person transfer in and out of a wheelchair. If their partner is ambulatory, the pup may assist by bringing a cane or walker. They can also aid him with stability and balance while walking. A mobility dog is trained to help their partner in many ways. They can retrieve dropped items, flip light switches, open and close doors, tug off clothing, and many other chores. A dog’s set of tasks can be customized to their person’s needs.
Mobility dogs are selected for their body size (a Chihuahua couldn’t do the job), temperament, desire to please, and work drive. Training takes 18 to 24 months after a dog’s growth plates have closed to avoid injury to the dog during balance and stability work.
Veterans and Their Service Dog
Service dogs first assisted veterans blinded in World War II. Consequently, a group of dogs are now being trained to help the many men and women returning from modern day war zones. It is estimated that about 20% of the veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are plagued with flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, guilt, depression, fear, and worry.
Therefore, a service dog can assist their partner by utilizing their body weight as a grounding mechanism to reduce panic or provide tactile interruption of flashbacks or nightmares through nudging, pawing or licking. The dog can turn lights on or open and close doors, especially during nightmares or before the veteran enters the home. Some service dogs retrieve a bag of medication or a drink. Furthermore, they can remind the veteran to take medication on time or to perform certain exercises and workouts.
As a result, veterans who have a service dog report lower levels of depression and anxiety and fewer hospitalizations. They also report feeling safe, protected, and loved unconditionally. These veterans often return to work, go to college, and comfortably care for their families.
There are service dogs that alert their human partner if their blood sugar levels drop, some that assist autistic partners to interpret information, and many that perform a variety of other services. Dogs are incredibly intelligent and willing helpers when they are given the proper training and paired with a loving partner who needs their assistance.
Our canine companions help us in numerous ways. Learn how to help your four-legged friend by visiting the NuVet Facebook page.
C. Sue Furman, Ph.D. spent 40 years at several major universities including the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences teaching future physicians and veterinarians and conducting research involving nerve and muscle. Learn more about Dr. C. Sue Furman here.