Therapy and Service Dogs: A Human’s Best Friend

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It’s an old adage: A man’s—and a woman’s—best friend is a dog. Dogs and humans have been companions since dogs were wolves. Wolves came out of the prehistoric forests to join our human ancestors around warm fires and eat discarded food scraps. Wolves became prehistoric man’s hunting partners. They saved lives and eased human fear and loneliness—just as the dogs they became still do.

Today, “working” dogs hold many jobs that help their human “bosses”: guarding property, rescuing swimmers and mountain climbers and pulling sleds. There are farm dogs and actor dogs. “Pet dogs” are members of human households with jobs ranging from baby-sitter to barking burglar alarms, from catching balls to making sure his/her “human” gets plenty of walking exercise.

Service and Assistance Dogs

Because of their unique intelligence, renowned loyalty and long history as companions, some dogs have become more than pets. They are the guardians and aides for humans who are ill or disabled. These are service dogs: individually trained by expert handlers to perform specific tasks in response to individuals with specific challenges such as visual or hearing impairments, serious illnesses or life threatening allergies.

Service dogs are true “watch dogs;” ever alert to the condition and needs of their human charge. Some reports indicate that trained diabetes alert dogs may be able to recognize the odor of a significant “spike” or drop in a human’s blood sugar level or even sense an oncoming epileptic seizure.

There are many types of Service and Assistance dogs. Each is trained to fulfill specific purposes for its owner/charge. It is important to verify the competence and background of the service dog trainer, as well as the source and background of the dog.

Qualified service dogs, protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act,  are usually allowed to board planes if the owner/handler has proper registration and identification. The traveler dog should be trained to accept the internal environment of a plane and the flight experience before it becomes an airborne traveler. It is important to confer with the chosen airline well before departure to determine documentation needed and procedures to be observed when boarding a plane or train with a service dog.

A special note to animal lovers: Do Not Pet or Distract a Working Service Dog. Their focus is, and should be, on their human charge.

The service dogs most frequently trained for guide and hearing support are Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. When accepting or choosing a service dog, the owner should not be distracted by a fluffy coat or sweet face. A service dog is a trained, working animal. It has been chosen for intelligence, disposition, reliability and breeding. A call to the American Kennel Club will help to determine an acceptable service dog breeder and the status of qualified service dog trainers.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are the canine equivalent of a good and patient friend who calms our fears, lightens our loneliness and distracts us from our pain — mental or physical. But, it must be understood that rarely are therapy dogs also service dogs. They do not qualify as service dogs as defined by the American Disabilities Act. The therapy dog is a patient and good “friend.” It offers gentle, unquestioned acceptance and attention.

Therapy Dogs, along with their owners and/or handlers, are trained to visit nursing homes, hospitals — even prisons — to lighten hearts and minds of residents and patients. Their sweetness and non-threatening attention have helped children overcome speech and emotional disorders and have eased the deep depression and despair experienced by victims of natural and man-made disasters. (Therapy dogs were flown to Orlando, Florida to soften the sorrow and despair caused by the mass shooting on June 12, 2016 in the city.)

When therapy dogs are on-the-job, they are accompanied by their registered owner and wear proof of training and registration. They are chosen as much for sweetness of temperament and patience as for alertness and intelligence. An ailing child may reach for a therapy dog’s nose, ear or offer a spontaneous hug. An elder’s hand may tremble as it slowly pets the canine visitor. The therapy dog’s human companion — usually the owner — is trained to be tolerant of human behavior and attentive and observant of all dog/human interactions to assure they are gentle, fulfilling experiences for both patient/resident and canine visitor.

In the United States, there are organizations that provide evaluation and registration of therapy dogs. In some communities, the therapy dog must pass the American Kennel Club Good Citizen Test. Depending on community, further tests may be required such as reactions to sudden and loud noises or to people with canes, using wheelchairs or manifesting unusual walking styles such as pronounced limps or lower limb dragging. Also, therapy dogs must be able to maintain a calm and positive response to unexpected behaviors by both children and the elderly.

With the right temperament, intelligence and training, a therapy dog can help the elderly, and infirm, the wounded and frightened with tolerance, patience and a gentle giving of “love.”

There are many organizations that provide certification of therapy and service dog breeders and trainers. The American Kennel Club or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should be contacted before accepting a dog or trainer.

(This article was reviewed February 2024 since it was originally published in July, 2016.)

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