Dogs are often said to be man’s best friend. For tens of thousands of years, dogs have lived and worked side by side with man: defending us against predators, hunting for food, and providing comfort and warmth on cold, dark nights. In return, we feed our pets, give them a warm bed to sleep in, and treat them as one of the family.
Service dogs are a cut above the average family pet. In many ways a service dog is no different to a regular pet in that he will chase sticks, curl up in front of a fire if given the opportunity, and demolish a plate of meat in a heartbeat. However, a highly trained service dog is a lot more disciplined than a regular dog and when in ‘working’ mode, he won’t be distracted by cats or tasty bones.
Just in case you are wondering, service dogs are different to dogs working in the security sector. Service dogs are trained to help disabled individuals live a normal life whereas dogs working in the security sector provide personal protection or help with law enforcement. However, both types of dogs benefit from the same underlying skills. For example, a powerful sense of smell is essential in both types of work: sniffer dogs are trained to detect drugs or explosives whereas some special service dogs can alert their owner to specific allergens in the immediate environment.
So what are the main types of service dog you are likely to come across?
Visual Assistance Dogs
Visual assistance dogs work with partially sighted or blind people. They are trained to guide their handler, protecting them from obstacles and any dangers they might meet. Guide dogs typically wear a white harness to alert people to their job.
Hearing Dogs for Deaf People
Hearing dogs are trained to respond to sounds in the environment their handler won’t be able to detect such as a doorbell, smoke alarm and ringing telephone. For example, if a smoke alarm sounded, a hearing dog would alert his owner to enable him to leave the property quickly. Small breeds are often used as hearing dogs, but any type of dog can be trained as long as they have an even temperament.
Diabetic Alert Dogs
Dogs are extremely sensitive to physiological symptoms we are not aware of, so they make excellent companions for people suffering from conditions such as diabetes. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to detect dangerously high or low blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. They can even be trained to call for emergency assistance if a handler collapses.
Autism Assistance Dogs
Children with autism spectrum disorders can exhibit a number of challenging behavioural problems. Autism assistance dogs are enormously helpful in this regard as they help to calm an autistic child down when they become over-stimulated.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
Some dogs are trained to help people with psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety or PTSD. It could be argued that any dog is capable of providing emotional support, but psychiatric service dogs receive special training and can help their handlers perform specific tasks.
This is just a small selection of the types of service dogs working today; there are many more that are equally as important.