If periodic exposure to an animal via animal-assisted activities, therapy, or education is healthful for someone with special needs, constant exposure may offer even greater benefits. Service or assistance dogs are trained to perform specific tasks in partnership with people who have disabilities. In addition to the familiar guide dogs for people with visual disabilities, hearing dogs for people with hearing disabilities, and service dogs for people using wheelchairs, dogs can assist people with many other disabilities, such as detecting an impending seizure, detecting high or low blood glucose levels in a person with diabetes, or helping to stabilize a child with autism. A growing role of service dogs is as psychiatric service dogs, assisting persons with mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), or anxiety. Other working dogs assist in law enforcement, agricultural or bomb sniffing, search and rescue, or war tasks. Service and assistance dogs have legally protected special access to use public transportation through the Department of Transportation and for housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some working dogs are kenneled in a facility when not working, although many police dogs live with the families of their handlers. Dogs range from being purpose-bred with extensive training, to being shelter-sourced with minimal formalized training. Significant investments of money and time are required for the specialized training and development of working partnerships with these dogs. As they forge working partnerships with their dogs, the handlers inevitably become emotionally bonded. Formally trained assistance or service dogs can have several trainers or handlers in their early lives, but after being placed, typically spend the rest of their lives with a single handler, providing assistance to the handler while also offering relief and comfort to other family members.
Also based on "equal accommodation" for people with disabilities, "emotional support animals" (ESAs) are another category of animals assured legally protected special access to transportation and housing if they provide a nexus of support for someone with a disability; however, they lack the broader aspects of public access provided to service dogs. Handlers of ESAs (and psychiatric service dogs) may be asked by landlords or transportation personnel to provide documentation from their medical professionals that they have a disability alleviated by the ESA. ESAs require no special training; they naturally offer special support. ESAs are not limited to dogs but can be of various species so long as they are helping the person who has the disability.
With limited oversight of service dogs and ESAs in the USA, permissive enforcement of requirements, and an expanding array of service dogs and ESAs, dogs of many different breeds and body sizes are providing meaningful support to people with a variety of disabilities. Smaller dogs are easier to manage for people who are frail or live in small apartments, and they may be sufficient for a person's needs, eg, in their capacity to retrieve dropped items. Informed veterinarians can offer wise counsel in these matters to people with disabilities regarding the needed training, medical care, and breed selection. This service is valuable, because the growing demand for service dogs has resulted in some cases of poorly trained dogs at high prices being presented for sale as purported service dogs.
Working dogs are extremely precious and valuable to their handlers. When a medical crisis arises with such a dog, the veterinarian is often the closest professional at hand and may need to provide support to the handler as well as the animal. Treatments that adversely affect performance, especially for an extended period, disrupt functioning of both the dog and the person. If the individual has a disability, special accommodation may be required for communication and veterinary instructions. Treatments not involving an emergency should be planned well in advance, with consideration of the handler's needs and schedule. Attentive listening and respect, although essential for all clients, assumes particular importance in these relationships.
Although no legal or regulatory process certifies assistance dogs, Assistance Dogs International is one organization engaged in developing international standards. Curricula for professionals interested in continuing education in this area are being offered by the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, California (formerly the Assistance Dog Institute), leading to a Master of Science in Canine Life Sciences.
Last full review/revision November 2014 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD; Mariko Yamamoto, PhD