Dogs have been trained and used as service animals for decades. Selected dogs go through a rigorous program of training and socialization. Afterward, those deemed suitable are chosen to assist those with physical and emotional disabilities. The most sought-after are dogs whose calm disposition and ability to learn make them reliable assistants once they’re placed in homes.
Guide dogs assist the blind and visually impaired. Usually Labrador and Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are chosen since their intelligence and temperament makes them ideal candidates. Outdoor guide dogs help their owners cross busy streets, avoid obstacles and hazards, navigate stairways and lead the way in unfamiliar territory. Within the home they locate needed belongings and pick up dropped items. They make their owners feel less helpless so they can move about with fewer restrictions. Their presence provides increased confidence, independence and mobility as they lead their humans safely through public places.
Hearing dogs are assigned to owners who are deaf or hearing impaired. Ranging in size, hearing dogs are usually medium or small mixed-breed mongrels from shelters and occasionally larger purebreds from breeders. The dogs serve many functions, including alerting the owner to noises such as ringing telephones, doorbells, oven timers, and smoke detectors. Like guide dogs, hearing dogs are trained to accompany their owners in public. Their extensive training and clearly marked coats designating them as hearing dogs grant them access to grocery stores, restaurants, buses and trains, and other buildings as needed.
Service dogs work with those who are physically handicapped, wheelchair bound, or impaired in other ways. As with other specially trained dogs, the capabilities of service dogs are extensive. Within the home duties include retrieving telephones, emptying the washing machine, turning on lights, and helping their owners get dressed and undressed. Outside the home the dogs open and close doors, carry shopping baskets, and perform physical tasks that challenge their owners. Labrador and Golden Retrievers are frequently used in these jobs for their gentleness and cooperative, sociable nature. They give their owners greater freedom to go wherever they please, expanding their surroundings.
In 2008 England’s Dogs for the Disabled initiated a program in which assistance dogs are used to help children with autism. Children who suffer from autism have limited verbal ability, are withdrawn and distracted, and don’t relate well to anyone but immediate family. Usually Labrador or Golden Retrievers, highly skilled dogs, have the ability to calm autistic children, help them cope better in unfamiliar situations and make them more sociable by providing a stabilizing influence. Early placements of dogs with autistic children have resulted in a decreased number of tantrums and greater opportunities for families to go into public places without issues.
Service dogs provide physical and emotional reassurance to owners needing assistance, including wounded combat veterans. They also work in prisons and religious ministries. Some even alert their owners to seizures. Assistance dogs offer help to those who need it.