“People are always coming up with new ways that dogs can mitigate their disability so that they can improve their quality of life. I think the growth of the industry will continue to be the realization of all that dogs can do for people.”
Chris Diefenthaler, Executive Director of Assistance Dogs International (ADI)
Assistance dogs take loyal companionship to a professional level. Trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate a person’s disability, these canine volunteers play a crucial role in the lives of the people they serve.
Assistance dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, with rigorous training that’s matched to the specific needs of a human partner. They can act as eyes for the visually impaired, ears for the hearing impaired, or a set of steadying paws that can brace, assist, and even open doors for those who need help with mobility.
“Anybody with a disability that can be assisted by a trained assistance dog is eligible for an assistance dog,” says Chris Diefenthaler, Executive Director of Assistance Dogs International (ADI). “In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States covers individuals with disabilities and their privileges and rights to have an assistance dog that mitigates their disability.”
This year’s International Assistance Dog Week takes place August 7-13, 2022. It’s an opportunity to recognize the incredible work of assistance dogs and educate the public about how they help individuals mitigate disability-related limitations. It’s also a time for new and aspiring veterinary professionals to brush up on the facts related to assistance dogs, so they can spread the word.
What Do Assistance Dogs Do?
Our canine friends fulfill many important roles in assisting their human companions, but official definitions matter: dogs that are classified as official assistance dogs are covered by the ADA, and they have public access rights when performing their designated tasks.
Officially, an assistance dog is a guide, hearing, or service dog who has been specifically trained to perform at least one task that mitigates the effects of an individual’s disability. Guide dogs assist individuals with visual impairments; hearing dogs assist individuals with hearing impairments; and service dogs are trained to perform tasks for individuals with other disabilities.
“‘Service dog’ is the broadest category because that type of dog can help with a very wide range of disabilities,” Diefenthaler says.
Seizure service dogs can be trained to alert someone that a seizure is imminent and to take action to mitigate it; they can also be trained in seizure response, seeking help or providing comfort when a seizure happens.
Service dogs helping with physical disabilities are the most common: they may open or close doors, turn lights on and off, pick up dropped items, or help someone off the floor by bracing for them.
Training & Matching Assistance Dogs
Many people associate the assistance dog role with the labrador retriever or golden retriever breeds, and both breeds do in fact make for excellent assistance dogs. Their trainability, their temperament, and the public’s view of them as being very friendly all help them perform their tasks well. But assistance dogs come in all shapes and sizes, all colors and breeds.
“All breeds can be assistance dogs,” Diefenthaler says. “Hearing dogs tend to be smaller, as they’re usually trained to nudge a person when there’s a sound. Some individuals with allergies use poodle crosses. Many of our programs use mixes and rescue dogs, in addition to purpose-bred dogs.”
More important than nature is nurture, and assistance dogs go through a rigorous training process. Organizations like ADI facilitate that process with their member programs that acquire dogs, train dogs, and then place dogs with matched clients (some assistance dogs are owner-trained, but it’s more rare). From start to finish, it can take anywhere from one to two years, depending on the age a dog enters the program.
The process usually starts with volunteer training, where, under the guidance of the program and with a puppy raiser or foster family, the dog will learn basic obedience commands and socialization skills. Gradually, they’ll move to more advanced tasks.
Then, the program determines the client’s needs so that they can customize the training a dog receives before it’s placed. Those volunteer puppy raisers and foster homes are one of the programs’ biggest resources, providing the environment and the one-on-one attention that the dogs really need during their early years of training. After that, dogs can graduate to more advanced training under the guidance of professionals.
“Professional assistance dog trainers typically require official training themselves, either through apprenticeship programs or internships,” Diefenthaler says. “It’s helpful if they already have some experience with basic obedience training, especially positive reinforcement training. So we encourage anybody who is interested in going into the field to get involved in your local community and learn some basic obedience training. After that, the skills training for assistance dogs can be taught at an actual member organization.”
But the process isn’t complete until the dog is matched to a specific person, and that matchmaking process is more complex than some might think.
“The matching process to make sure that a person is getting the right dog for their specific disability does take some time,” Diefenthaler says. “It isn’t just the first person on the waiting list who gets the next dog available; there’s a lot of decisions that go into making sure that the dog has the right temperament and personality to match that of the person’s lifestyle and needs. For successor dogs, the wait may not be too long, but there’s always going to be somewhat of a wait, especially for a person’s first assistance dog.”
The Harm of Fake Assistance Dogs
Assistance dogs can often be spotted out in public by their professional-looking vests, which identify them as on the job (and not open to being distracted!).
However, their visibility has led to a worrying side effect: fake assistance dogs. Enabled by fraudsters who purchase real-looking service vests and bogus identification documents, fake assistance dogs undermine the legitimacy and capability of true assistance dogs. Those ill-gotten vests can allow a dog privileged access, but they don’t confer the years of training true assistance dogs receive.
“There are many invisible disabilities,” Diefenthaler says. “So just because you can’t see the disability in a person doesn’t mean that an assistance dog is a fake. But an assistance dog is well-behaved, under control, not barking, and not acting aggressively. Those are all expectations of an assistance dog’s appropriate behavior out in public.”
In the case of fake assistance dogs, the unprofessional behaviors they or their human counterpart demonstrate can harm the reputation of real assistance dogs, or even lead to physical altercations between dogs. Those altercations can be traumatic for real assistance dogs, and jeopardize their ability to perform their task effectively; they’ve even led to assistance dogs being retired in the past.
“A traumatic incident with an untrained, poorly trained, or fake assistance dog can be life-altering,” Diefenthaler says. “If that individual has to then retire that dog because the dog no longer feels comfortable working out in public, then that is a devastating loss for that individual, who may then be waiting to receive another dog.”
What Veterinary Professionals Need to Know
Assistance dogs require a little extra attention from veterinary professionals.
First, veterinarians and veterinary technicians must be mindful of how to communicate with people with disabilities about their assistance dogs: someone with a visual impairment may not answer questions about how their dog has been behaving in the same way as others would.
Second, these assistance dogs are precious cargo! What might be a small issue for a regular dog can be a major issue for an assistance dog: a dog with a jaw or tooth problem may not be able to pick up dropped items, or a dog with an injured leg may not be able to brace for its owner. Veterinary professionals are a critical resource in maintaining the health of assistance dogs, and thus ensuring assistance dogs and their owners a high quality of life.
“For veterinarians and veterinary technicians, having a real understanding of the unique relationship between a person and their assistance dog is so important,” Diefenthaler says. “An assistance dog is more than just a pet.”
New and aspiring veterinary professionals should familiarize themselves with the characteristics of assistance dogs now because there will almost certainly be more of them in the future. Already, assistance dogs are in high demand. But the aging of the Baby Boomers, combined with a greater understanding of all that assistance dogs can do, means we should see even more and more canine companions pitching in to make life a little easier.
“People are always coming up with new ways that dogs can mitigate their disability so that they can improve their quality of life,” Diefenthaler says. “I think the growth of the industry will continue to be the realization of all that dogs can do for people.”