What is covered in fur, provides unconditional love, and is an exceptional caregiver? The four-legged answer is simple: an assistance dog. August 7 to August 13 is International Assistance Dog Week, a time to celebrate these often unsung heroes of compassion and assistance that provide care and companionship to an estimated 47 million people in the U.S.
What is International Assistance Dog Week?
International Assistance Dog Week adds education and awareness to its goals for the week by focusing on the following:
- Recognition of and honor for assistance dogs
- Raising awareness and promoting education for the public about assistance dogs
- Honoring puppy raisers and trainers
- Recognizing heroic deeds performed by assistance dogs in our communities
Assistance dogs have an important place in helping those who need them. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees that all service animals and official assistance dogs have access to all public places that their owners might need, noting:
“Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go” (ADA 2010).
In September 2010, the ADA was amended to define service animals as dogs alone, with some exceptions for miniature horses.
How dogs become assistants
The road to becoming an assistance dog (also called a service animal) is a long one. The average time to train an assistance dog is between one and two years. From the moment they are born, assistance dogs are treated differently than the family pet. Puppies born to be service dogs go to puppy foster homes as soon as they are weaned from their mother. This helps socialize the dog and gets them used to being in all sorts of different situations with people and other pets.
After a certain stage of puppyhood (which varies, depending on the animal and the kind of tasks the dog will perform), the dog is carefully evaluated to see if they have the temperament required to become a service dog. Some of the sweetest dogs from the litter will not make the cut. Assistance dogs need to be even-tempered, friendly, receptive to training, and focused.
The potential assistance dog will then begin formal training. In some cases, owners may learn how to train their own dogs, but most often, dogs are trained by professionals.
Types of jobs
Many people associate assistance dogs with the visually-impaired, but their work goes far beyond leading the blind. Assistance dogs are utilized for both visible disabilities as well as “invisible” illness (e.g., mental illness and chronic pain). Here are eight types of assistance dog and their tasks.
1. Chronic pain
Assistance dogs for chronic pain have multiple functions. From providing motivation to get up and exercise to helping open doors and fetch items, assistance dogs for chronic pain perform a wide variety of tasks for their owners. These dogs also provide valuable moral support and may help with mobility when needed.
2. Severe allergen alert dogs (AADs)
Allergen alert dogs are trained to detect the presence of life-threatening allergens for their owners. These dogs are most often paired with children but can be trained for any age. AADs wear vests with allergy information as well as emergency treatments where applicable (e.g., Epi-pens).
3. Autism service dogs or sensory processing disorder dogs
These dogs help calm and ground people with autism. The owners may or may not have a visible disability, and dogs may or may not wear a vest, indicating that they are a service dog.
4. Brace/Mobility Support Dogs (BMSD)
These dogs provide physical support to owners who require it to perform their daily tasks. This may be due to balance issues, or it could be in cases of chronic pain or disability. These dogs are larger due to the nature of the work and generally wear a specially fitted harness to perform their job.
5. Diabetic alert dogs (DADs)
Diabetic alert dogs can sense when their owners are threatened by dangerous blood sugar levels. DADs carry emergency procedures on them, especially if the dog may be the “caregiver” that medical personnel contact first.
6. Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs)
Psychiatric service dogs help owners with anxiety, depression, or PTSD by performing specific tasks. These dogs are afforded the exact same federal protections as other service dogs. Emotional support animals (ESAs) and therapy dogs, although important in their own right, are not the same as SSDs and are not offered the same access as PSDs.
7. Seizure assistance dogs
Seizure assistance dogs (also known as seizure response dogs) are a special kind of dog that relies on intuition and the bond with their owner to alert them when a seizure is imminent. The dog may alert their owner to an undetectable seizure, bring medication, utilize pressure to avert the seizure, or call 911.
8. Wheelchair assistance dogs
Wheelchair assistance dogs perform a wide variety of tasks for their wheelchair-bound owners. This could include assistance with everything from dressing to cooking to navigating getting in and out of a vehicle. These dogs are also typically larger to support the weight of their owner if necessary.
Assistance dogs make the world an easier place for those who struggle with various conditions. While they can be trained to perform many different tasks, another of their important functions is to provide emotional and mental support and care to their owners. Without their furry companionship, many people suffering from debilitating conditions from mental health issues to chronic pain would have a lesser quality of life.
International Assistance Dog Week is a great way to acknowledge and celebrate the importance of these dogs in their lives of millions of people. For important updates and information on the week, and all of the things assistance dogs do to make life better, follow International Assistance Dog Week on their Facebook page!