For longer than humans have lived together in cities, we’ve worked together with canids. Early humans may first have bonded with wolves by offering them the excess lean protein they could not efficiently utilize. Humans needed other nutrients to survive during the most bitter months of the ice age, and wolves would have been competing for some of the same prey. The wolf pups captured and domesticated were likely kept as pets, but having wolves nearby may have helped keep these early humans safer from other predators.
Through the millennia, the relationship between humans and dogs has expanded. We have used dogs as hunting partners and for transportation, protection, and companionship. As early as the first century CE, we have evidence of dogs providing service to people with disabilities. In the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, a fresco depicts a dog leading a blind man. For more than two thousand years, we’ve been using service dogs to help those with special needs.
To be considered a service dog under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the dog’s training must have taught it to perform a specific job or task for the disabled person it assists. Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals do not meet the criteria for service animals. Service dogs must perform physical tasks that their handler cannot readily perform without assistance. The breeds that excel as service dogs are highly trainable and strong enough to provide actual support depending on their person’s disability.
- Who Do Service Dogs Help?
- Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog
- Which Breeds Make Great Service Dogs?
- Final Thoughts
Who Do Service Dogs Help?
Service dogs assist people with physical disabilities with tasks geared to the nature of their person’s disability. A person with diabetes may have a dog trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. An epileptic person’s service dog may help them remain safe during a seizure. Some of the physical disabilities that may qualify a person to have a service animal are blindness, deafness, paralysis, Multiple Sclerosis, autism, epilepsy, osteoporosis, scoliosis, allergies, asthma, arthritis, and other seizure disorders.
Service dogs also assist people with specific mental disabilities. Service dogs can aid people with bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, neurocognitive disorders, psychotic disorders, and substance abuse disorders
As our society’s needs change, so do the roles we ask these special pups to fill. For example, the prevalence of food allergies is on the rise. Service dogs are now being used to detect the presence of food allergens. Severe allergies are more common in children than adults, but children may not be as aware of potential exposures in their day-to-day lives. Allergy detection dogs assist children with anaphylactic food allergies by detecting the scent of a harmful allergen before direct exposure. The ways we use our canine companions to help people with specific conditions will continue to grow and change as our needs change.
Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog
Service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities live more independently. People with visual impairments, seizure disorders, diabetes, and other disabilities use service dogs daily.
Service dogs are working animals, not pets, and are specifically trained to perform tasks related to the person’s disability. For example, a service dog who assists a person with a seizure disorder may detect when a seizure is about to occur, alert the person, and help get them in a safe position.
An emotional support animal (ESA) provides relief to people through companionship. ESAs can be any animal, but they are most commonly dogs.
Emotional support dogs qualify for no-pet housing. However, a physician’s letter may be required due to the amount of misuse of ESAs over the years. There is no formal training for dogs to be emotional support animals, which may explain why you see some that misbehave.
Service dogs are allowed in businesses while emotional support dogs don’t have access to all public areas. The ADA doesn’t require any form of registration for service dogs, and emotional support dogs don’t require registration either.
You can register your ESA, which lists your dog in a database and gives you a letter from a medical professional stating your need for an emotional support animal (if you meet the pre-screening requirements). This letter may help you obtain no-pet housing as long as no inaccuracies are shared. CertaPet is an emotional support animal registration company that can help you get a housing letter and an air travel letter.
Which Breeds Make Great Service Dogs?
One of the most common breeds used as service dogs is the Labrador Retriever. Originally a fisherman’s helper, the Labrador’s intelligence and attentiveness to his family make him a top candidate. The cheerful and eager disposition that makes him a favorite household pet helps him bond with his family. Some service dog providers use Labrador Retrievers exclusively because their characteristics make a successful match likely. For example, NEADS uses only people-oriented, well-mannered Labrador Retrievers between 50 and 75 pounds. Labradors can meet the needs specific to many types of disabilities because they have the size to perform tasks requiring strength, the instinct to retrieve, and sense slight changes in physiology and emotional response.
The Golden Retriever excels as a service dog. His friendly energy and desire to please make him an excellent guide dog for the blind. The Golden’s friendly disposition and high trainability make him one of the top choices in many categories. Their retriever instinct makes them natural mobility assistance dogs, bringing necessary items for their owners. They are large enough to move items, open doors, and provide physical support for their person if necessary. Goldens’ never met a stranger attitude makes them a natural choice when their person is out among other people.
German Shepherds go to great lengths to please their owners. Their intelligence, loyalty, and obedience make them a popular choice as service dogs. Due to their size and strength, German Shepherds make excellent service dogs for people who need physical support for mobility. The GSD service dog can calm its handler with gentle pressure by sitting on its handler’s feet, lying gently on their body, or putting its paws on their lap. German Shepherds’ legendary protective characteristics keep them attuned to their person’s needs.
Well known as one of the most intelligent and trainable breeds, Poodles have the additional benefit of coming in more than one size. Although Standard Poodles can use their size to influence their person physically, the Toy and Miniature Poodles are a better fit for indoor lifestyles and smaller floor plans. All three sizes possess the social intelligence and trainability that make Poodles popular as service dogs. They are “friendly, patient, gentle, and at ease in most situations,” traits necessary when working with autistic children. Poodles work well for hearing or vision impaired owners. Diabetic patients and those with seizure disorders or mental disabilities benefit from the assistance of these highly trained dogs.
Boxers occupy a position in most lists of preferred breeds for their friendly and generous personalities. They are optimistic dogs with a patient and protective nature. Boxers’ intelligence lends to their trainability, and they are excellent problem solvers. They are one of the best breeds for children and even function as guide dogs for the blind. Service dog organizations can train them to alert people with epilepsy that a seizure is imminent.
These giant dogs may not fit in every family’s home, but they are a great fit as certified service dogs. Great Danes rank very well in adaptive training, which means they adapt to any situation in which they find themselves and think of a way to help their person. Great Danes’ size helps them physically support individuals with mobility problems. Loyal to their families, they’re also friendly with strangers.
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Corgis are herding dogs, but this herding instinct makes them helpful with autistic children who may wish to wander. While no dog should be the only barrier to keeping an autistic child from wandering, the Corgi does act as a natural obstacle to flight. They are friendly and upbeat, and quick movements don’t fluster them. Corgis adapt well to apartment life as long as they get daily exercise.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Originally bred as a companion dog, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel craves the company of its person. Their small size makes them a handy apartment or small home dog, and they tolerate unexpected movements better than many other small breeds. They are a good size for a child to handle and snuggle and an easy fit on a lap to provide comforting weight. Often used as therapy dogs, the Cavalier King Charles can provide calm for patients with anxiety and stress-related disorders.
Newfoundlands love children. Sometimes called “nanny dogs,” a sweet and gentle temperament is the defining characteristic of the breed. Their immense size can be both a benefit and a drawback when choosing a pup for an autistic child. This gentle giant is infinitely cuddleable but may be too large for many homes and yards. They don’t need a lot of exercise for their size, and thirty minutes per day may be enough, but they also shed more than many other suitable breeds. They also have a shorter lifespan than most smaller service dogs.
Bernese Mountain Dog
The Bernese Mountain Dog, another gentle giant, has the size and strength to assist patients with mobility challenges. Berners make great overall family dogs, although they typically bond most with one family member. Even with their size, they are friendly with strangers and are relatively easy to train. Calm and dependable, they are indoor dogs but need at least thirty minutes of exercise each day to stay healthy. They shed more than most other dogs, so consider hair in the house before deciding on a Berner. Like other giant breeds, they have a shorter lifespan than smaller dogs.
For some children with autism, the friendly Beagle may be the perfect pup. They get along well with children and never meet a stranger. Beagles thrive on affection. Happy-go-lucky and active, these smaller dogs enjoy the outdoors and exercise. Their outgoing personalities can make them upbeat companions for people with anxiety disorders such as PTSD or veterans transitioning back from active duty. Beagles may not be the best choice for a child sensitive to noise, as they tend to bark excessively.
There’s a reason the famous canine character, Lassie, was a Collie. Loyal family companions are intelligent and learn quickly. Collies are particularly attuned to human emotion, which makes them a well-suited partner for a child on the spectrum. They have the size and strength to aid with mobility. Gentle but playful, they bond with and tend to stick close to their owners and close to home.
Although their small size would seemingly limit their usefulness, Pomeranians can be trained to perform many tasks that help their disabled person function. Pomeranians’ intelligence and trainability make them great helpers for the hearing impaired. They can manage household tasks as their size allows. They can work with autistic individuals and as medical alert dogs, letting a diabetic owner know when there are issues with blood sugar.
Doberman Pinschers have a reputation for being brave watchdogs, but their loyal and affectionate nature with their people makes them great psychiatric service dogs. Their size and strength allow them to avert a psychiatric crisis or prevent a patient from endangering themselves.
The diminutive Havanese may seem small for the task, but their breed characteristics make them exceptional psychiatric service dogs. They bond strongly with their people and are sensitive to slight changes in mood or behavior. Eager to please, they learn their job quickly and respond swiftly to potentially harmful behavioral situations.
Border Collies are the most widely used herding dogs in many countries. They are incredibly clever and highly biddable. Their AKC breed description goes so far as suggesting they have the “uncanny ability to reason.” This same ability to make a decision based on multiple factors makes the Border Collie able to make decisions about how to move the herd when out of range of his shepherd, making him suitable as a psychiatric service dog.
The Bloodhound‘s nose has made him the go-to dog for tracking missing persons. His sense of smell is the strongest in the canine world, with a nose having more than 300 million scent receptors. As service dogs, Bloodhounds have the size and strength to bring necessary items to their person, and their long legs and body give them considerable range when retrieving required objects. They become attuned to the emotional needs of the people with whom they are paired.
The Miniature Schnauzer‘s outgoing personality makes it popular with children. They’re easy to train and adaptable, making them appropriate as service dogs for autistic individuals or those challenged with chronic anxiety. The larger Standard and Giant Schnauzer have similar personalities and the physical size and strength necessary to perform physical service tasks and assist with mobility.
The Labradoodle is not a breed but a cross of two breeds that individually make great service dogs. A mix of Labrador Retriever and Poodle, the puppies of this cross will present traits of each parent with some variability. Because both parent breeds are intelligent and trainable, the pups are typically well suited to this intensive training. Labradoodles were first bred as guide dogs to capitalize on these traits.
Although the tiny Yorkshire Terrier cannot aid with mobility and may be too delicate for some service jobs, he aims to please and can do many jobs that don’t require physical strength. Yorkies aid disabled persons by managing everyday tasks like fetching light items and opening specially equipped cabinet doors. They can be trained to alert the hearing impaired to specific sounds. These tiny dogs are sensitive to minor changes in their owner’s physiological state. They can detect impending epileptic seizures and subtle changes in blood glucose levels in time to address the situation safely.
Service dogs address the needs of a broad swath of society, and the challenges they can help people overcome are constantly evolving. If you believe your family could benefit from the confidence a service dog’s assistance can bring, discuss your options with your doctor and see what local resources are available to help. If you can’t find any locally, online resources like United Disability Services, Canine Companions, or Assistance Dogs International can guide you as you begin your journey to find the right canine companion for your unique situation.
Don’t give up if you don’t locate the perfect dog right away. Good things take time, and although it may take time to find a well-trained service canine to meet your needs or the needs of your loved one, the outcome will be worth the wait.