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                           Born to Work

We put dogs to work in a variety of ways. Herding dogs utilize their speed and endurance to help manage huge flocks of livestock that would otherwise overwhelm a herder, while search-and-rescue dogs track down lost hikers and accident victims using their precisely-tuned ears and noses. Even pet dogs are often tasked with guard duties, alerting their owners when strangers intrude on their properties.

Service dogs, however, are on a whole other level of duty-serving. They’re often trained from puppyhood to assist with specific disabilities, performing highly individualized tasks to aid and protect their handlers as well as knowing how to seek help during medical emergencies. Some people are able to train their existing pet dogs to become service dogs as well, though the majority of service dogs are bred specifically for their job-related traits.

Passing the Test

Becoming a service dog is no walk in the park; up to 70% of dogs who begin training don’t end up qualifying for certification. Service dogs need to possess several important personality traits in order to perform their duties effectively. They must be able to remain calm and focused in distracting environments, accustomed to being touched by strangers, highly adaptable and extremely intelligent.


But just fitting the proper personality profile isn’t enough. A prospective service dog will undergo around two years of rigorous training; in addition to learning disability-specific skills, the dog will be taught how to use the bathroom on command, safely enter and exit building and rooms, board various types of transportation and behave appropriately both on and off of its harness. It will have to learn to ignore all manner of distractions, from other dogs to rowdy children to captivating scents and sounds.

                         Disability Disciplines

People with a huge range of disabilities can benefit from the assistance of a service dog. These conditions span the entire spectrum of both physical and mental disabilities both visible and invisible. Here are just some of the conditions that service dogs can assist with.

                         

                        Seizures and Epilepsy

Seizure dogs are invaluable to individuals with epilepsy and other seizure disorders. When a person begins seizing, the dog can break the fall with its body, then lie down next to the person to minimize the risk of injury during the seizure. Children in particular benefit from the presence of a seizure dog as their smaller bodies are more easily protected by the dog, who can also be trained to bark in order to alert the parents of the seizure.

Some dogs are even able to predict seizures before they occur, guiding their handlers to a safe area where they can lie down in order to avoid falling or getting injured. How they do this is still unknown; one theory is that they use their incredible noses to detect subtle changes in smell that occur prior to a seizure. Other people believe that these dogs pick up on subconscious behavioral changes displayed by their handlers before a seizure – signals that go unnoticed by people but are obvious to the dog.

Psychiatric Conditions

Service dogs can assist with a number of psychiatric conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, bipolar disorder and autism. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are some of the most widely-known service dog handlers. The dog can lead the person to a quiet place during a flashback and provide an ongoing source of comfort and grounding simply by being present.

People with autism, especially children, benefit from a service dog that’s trained to encourage expression and assist with sensory issues. When its owner has a panic attack, a service dog can direct them to safety and provide medication to stop the attack. Other tasks performed by psychiatric service dogs include reminding handlers to take medication, intense licking or nudging to end a disassociative episode and even dialing a family member to come and help.

                                 Diabetes

Service dogs help people with diabetes by monitoring for scent changes associated with rising and falling blood sugar levels. The dog can detect these changes up to 30 minutes before any symptoms begin; when it does, it alerts its handler and sometimes provides insulin or a snack to prevent an episode. If an episode does occur the dog is trained to seek help, either by locating a person to assist or by calling 911 on a special device.

          Emotional Support and Therapy Dogs

Many people, especially those with mental health conditions, also receive assistance from dogs. An emotional support dog, or therapy dog, is not technically considered a service dog as it isn’t trained to perform any specific task related to its handler’s disability. However, the dog may still provide immense help to its owner by being a source of calm and security.

Emotional support dogs can help ground their owners to reality, preventing anxiety attacks or episodes of disassociation. They can be excellent motivators for people with depression and other mood disorders, encouraging them to go out into the world and helping to prevent downward spirals. A dog can also alleviate sensory overload by providing its owner with a comforting presence as well as something to touch and focus on.

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