Photo courtesy of riekhavoc/Flickr.com
While guide dogs, like those trained at Guide Dogs of America, provide an invaluable service to their human companions, the ability of dogs to assist humans goes far beyond that of working with visually impaired people.

Dogs can be trained to provide a wide variety of life-enhancing, and sometimes, life-saving skills.    

A service dog, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”  Common service dog tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items for those with mobility issues, alerting a person having seizure, or providing psychiatric support for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The benefits of service dogs have been well documented via scientific research. A study published in the September 2011 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (say that three times, fast!), found a significant decrease in morning cortisol levels of children with autism spectrum disorders when paired with a service dog. Similarly, a Journal of the American Medical Association study measuring the value of service dogs for people with ambulatory disabilities found that participants "showed substantial improvements in self-esteem, internal locus of control, and psychological well-being within six months after receiving their service dog."

Most recently, psychiatric assistance dogs have been getting attention as soldiers return from Iraq not only with physical disabilities but, often, battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Organizations like Patriot Paws in Rockwall, Tx., and Veterans Moving Forward in Catharpin, Va., raise, train and provide dogs to veterans at no cost. In addition to traditional mobility-related tasks, the dogs are trained to help recognize and avert post-traumatic stress disorder episodes. According to Patriot Paws trainer Bonnie Hoard, the demand is so great that there is a current shortage of service dogs trained specifically for veterans.

Therapy dogs also provide a wonderful service to the community, but work in a volunteer capacity and are not considered service dogs, nor afforded special access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Delta Society, an organization that registers and insures volunteer therapy dog teams, therapy dogs and their handlers “are trained to provide specific human populations with appropriate contact with animals.” Therapy dogs are generally the personal pets of volunteer handlers, and training is limited to that which helps the dog behave appropriately while out in public amid various distractions and when interacting with a wide variety of people. 

Therapy dog teams visit hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities where residents and patients might enjoy interacting with an animal. As a former therapy dog team in partnership with my Whippet, Zoie, I can personally attest to a dog's ability to brighten a patient or resident’s day.

Regardless of the task performed, it's easy to see why, for many people, dogs really are man's best friend.


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