Senior Health

2/12/2021 | By Annie Tobey

Dog lovers already know that having a dog is therapeutic – their affection, loving presence, and encouragement to get up and move make any owner’s life better. Some dogs assist in goals such as search and rescue, visitation in nursing homes and children’s hospitals, and in police and military support. However, there are times when individuals benefit from a personal service dog that can help them live more independently. To understand if you qualify for a service dog, it’s helpful to know the basics behind these marvelous animals and the help they provide.

What exactly is an assistance dog?

Besides “loving companion,” dogs can be trained to meet many specific needs.

Service dogs are professionally trained to help people overcome the challenges of physical and/or mental disabilities. Service dogs help children and adults perform tasks they can’t do on their own, so the animals help their people – aka “handlers” – become more independent and self-sufficient.

Tasks that service dogs are trained for include guiding a blind person safely along sidewalks and on public transportation, retrieving items, opening and closing doors, pulling a wheelchair, turning lights on and off, alerting a person to sounds and potential dangers, and detecting and responding to seizures and other medical emergencies.

Depending upon the disability they are trained to service, these amazing canines may be called mobility service dogs, seizure service dogs, autism service dogs, diabetic alert service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, service dogs for veterans with military-related PTSD, and medical alert service dogs.

Facility dogs work aside human partners in a setting such as a healthcare setting, a courtroom, or an educational facility to assist with therapy, provide motivation, and give comfort.

Emotional support dogs (or emotional support animals, since cats and other critters can qualify) provide comfort through companionship, affection, and, well, emotional support. They don’t need to be highly trained in specific tasks like a service dog does.

These three types of assistance dogs – service, facility, and emotional support – are vastly different in training and function. In this article, we’ll examine service dogs specifically.

Do I qualify for a service dog?

To understand if you or a loved one might qualify for a service dog:

Do you have one of the disabilities that service dogs typically assist?

These include seizures, autism, multiple sclerosis, mobility issues, visual impairment, hearing impairment, balance issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A reputable agency will match the dog’s training with the person’s needs, so you will need to identify your specific challenges and needs.

Do you desire and need to be more self-sufficient?

Agencies want their trained dogs to go to people who desire a more independent lifestyle.

This is especially relevant since many of these organizations have a waiting list for their service dogs. For example, the Ability Center in Sylvania, Ohio, has 50 people on its waiting list, 9 of whom are priority.

Are you willing and able to care for a dog?

Caring for a dog properly includes showing an ability and desire to interact with the dog properly – this includes showing affection as well as the mental ability to learn and carry out commands. Caring for a dog means having an adequate fenced-in yard as well as having the financial means to care for the dog’s physical needs: exercise, high-quality food, toys, pet health insurance, and veterinary care.

In some cases, the placement organization requires that the potential owner will be able to work with the dog for the entirety of dog’s working life, approximately 10 years.

Are you willing and able to travel for your initial training?

Organizations bring together new owners and their dogs for several days of getting acquainted. Besides initial bonding, this provides the opportunity for the handler to learn proper cues and other behavioral lessons. This typically happens at the organization’s property and thus may involve travel and travel expenses. Service Dogs of Virginia, for example, requires a handler to attend a two-week (Monday through Friday) training at its facility in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Are you willing and able to maintain the dog’s training?

Some organizations require annual testing as regular follow-up.

How do I find a service dog?

You’ll want a dog that comes from a reputable organization, one that has pre-screened dogs for possible health issues and trained the dog for the skills that will meet your needs.

The best place to start is with Assistance Dogs International. ADI accreditation assures that an assistance dog program is reputable and meets the highest standards of the industry, including treatment of dogs, client service, training quality, and ethical business practices.

ADI-accredited Saint Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke, Virginia, for example, gets most of its dogs from reputable breeders and from the ADI Breeding Cooperative. “We select healthy, structurally sound dogs with a good temperament. The dog must be friendly to people and other animals.”

ADI members serve specific geographic locations, to ensure best client support. Each organization sets its own requirements and offer slightly different services. The search feature on the ADI website sorts member organizations to steer you to a program that works for your needs. Besides geography, distinguishing criteria include:

  • Types of assistance dogs trained (hearing, service, guide)
  • Disabilities services (mobility, autism, PTSD – military or civilian, diabetes, seizures, psychiatric, dementia, and other medical)
  • Demographic served (adults, children, active military, veterans, first responders)

Through a search on ADI, for example, you can find three accredited programs located in Ohio that serve mobility issues, and you can pinpoint Canines for Service in Wilmington, North Carolina, which specializes in service dogs for veterans.

Can I train and use a dog I already have?

Some programs will train dogs and their owners as assistance dog teams. The trainers will evaluate the dog and owner first to ensure they can achieve the necessary performance. For ADI-accredited members, the training program lasts at least six months.

If you qualify for a service dog, you will discover both assistance and affection. The relationship requires a commit of money, time, and attention, but it’s a commitment with a powerfully positive payoff.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey