Humans have identified dogs as their loyal companions since the dawn of time, and many leading past civilizations, recognizing their enormous potential and abilities, have raised dogs to the status of deities, like Anubis for the Egyptians, Xolotl for the Mayas tribe, and Cerberus for the Greeks.
Even now we are often awe-struck by the incredible new abilities we find out in our dog friends, like the ability to sense and alert of oncoming epileptic seizures, the ability to smell low and high blood sugar levels, and according to a research of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University in the UK, dogs even have the capacity of smelling COVID-19 on people with a successful rate of 94%.
Dogs might not be deities, but they definitely have some superpowers. And what is most heart-warming, is that dogs use their “powers” every day to help people in need, making their life safer and easier to get by. Share America estimates that in 2021 approximately 500,000 registered service dogs are helping people, and they seem to be nowhere to enough, as more families are applying to get their own service dog and are stuck in long waiting queues.
Although I like to call them superheroes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”
Service dogs help both people with physical and mental disabilities, and there are various types of service dogs, each trained to conduct different tasks, according to the condition of the assisted. Here I have summed up 8 different type of service dogs, and what they can do.
1. Guide Dogs
Guide dogs are the eyes of blind and visually impaired people, they help them travel safely and confidently through familiar environments as well as foreign ones. The handler will tell the guide dog where to go, and the service dog will navigate him/her safely, avoiding obstacles, alerting the handler of doors and steps in the way, as well as low hanging tree branches or other objects in the way which could harm the handler, finding pedestrian crossings when necessary to cross the street, and leading its handler to cross only when it is safe to do so. An interesting characteristic of guide dogs is that they are trained to obey their handler but are also trained to disobey him/her! It is called “intelligent disobedience,” meaning that the guide dog can refuse to carry out a handler’s command, if it feels it is unsafe, and would cause harm to the handler. Like stepping out onto the street when there is oncoming traffic.
Labradors and Golden Retrievers are usually employed as guide dogs, and they start their training very young, when they are just puppies. At first, they learn just the basic commands, such as “sit,” “drop” and “stay,” then they spend around six months learning how to behave in public and busy environments without getting distracted from their job. After that they start the real guide dog training, which usually takes 6 months to 1 year, finally they are paired with a handler with whom they will train with, until they are ready to be on their own.
2. Hearing Dogs
Hearing dogs are the ears of deaf and hearing-impaired people. They are trained to alert their handlers of common sounds, such as alarm clock, doorbell, mobile ringing, baby’s cry, smoke alarm, or other important noises meaningful to the handler. To alert, they would make physical contact, by nudging with their nose or pawing. Many hearing dogs are also trained to lead their handler to the source of the noise, or in some cases, where the source of the noise is dangerous and could harm their handler, they would lead away from it to a safer location.
Although hearing dogs are trained to be attentive to certain sounds, they are also trained to tune out all unimportant background noises and stay focused on their jobs, especially when outside, where busy street noises could be scary and overwhelming for untrained dogs.
Hearing dogs can also be taught to respond to Sign Language cues, when they are to assist people who are non-verbal.
Most hearing dogs are small to medium sized mixed breeds, although people tend to prefer Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Poodles and Cocker Spaniels for this job, still what is really important is that the dog is very attentive to sound, has a steady temperament, is friendly and people-oriented and has the ability to stay focused on its job, to become a valid hearing service dog.
3. Mobility Service Dogs
Mobility service dogs are trained to assist physically disabled people with mobility issues, ranging from milder issues like poor balance, to more severe ones, like the impossibility to ambulate without a wheelchair. Apart from providing love, affection and company, mobility service dogs can do a lot to help their assisted, they help their handler maintain his/her balance while walking or going up and down the stairs, can pick up and carry objects, open and close doors, drawers and cabinets, switch lights on and off, and even pull the wheelchair, although it is suggested that the dog pulls only for a short amount of time, and not as the only traction, but along with the handler operating the wheelchair.
Usually, medium to big size dogs are chosen to be trained as mobility service dogs, as their tasks require a bit of physical strength. Prioritized dog breeds for this job are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Poodles.
4. Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), unlike the service dogs listed above, are not meant to assist people with physical issues, but to help people with mental health disorders. This does not make them any less important, and their job is actually somewhat trickier, given the difficulty of identifying the cues of the disease presenting itself, like hallucinations, anxiety, or panic. Psychiatric service dogs can offer their services to people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and social phobias. They are able to prevent or reduce anxiety and panic attacks, as well as emotional meltdowns by distracting the handler, or applying physical pressure to provide comfort and help the handler calm down. They can warn people around to give you space, and fetch medications, as well as alert others if they feel their handler is in danger. For people who suffer from hallucinations, PSDs are extremely helpful in helping them discern what is real and what is not, keeping them anchored firmly to reality.
Seen how psychiatric service dogs’ job is not only ruled by verbal cues coming from their handlers directly, but it is mostly triggered by the cues coming from the handler’s body language, changes in attitude and feeling, or from the environment itself, it is important that psychiatric service dogs train close to their handlers to identify, understand and memorize the cues of oncoming attacks, and be able to respond more efficiently.
Dogs of any breed can be trained to become PSDs, what is important is that the dog is sociable, attentive, able to focus on its job, and has a steady temper. For this reason, many people decide to train their own dog or a newly purchased dog they feel a connection with, as their PSD. There are many PSD training courses available both online and offline to choose from.
5. Diabetic Alert Dogs
Diabetic Alert Dogs make use of their enhanced sense of smell dog superpower to detect radical changes in blood sugar levels, too low or too high blood sugar levels, and alert their diabetic assistance to check their sugar levels and if necessary, take medication. They can also alert others if the situation gets too critical.
It is still not clear whether the diabetic alert service dog can smell a difference in the smell of the breath or sweat or body odor, it is anyway a great superpower to have.
6. Allergy Detection Dogs
Allergy detection dogs, like diabetic alert dogs, use their super sense of smell, 2,000 times more powerful than human sense of smell, to smell and detect any trace of allergens which could harm their handler. The most common allergens are nuts, peanuts, wheat, milk, eggs, shellfish, latex, and certain chemicals used in cleaning detergents. The allergy detection dog is sometimes required to do a room sweep to detect any trace of the allergen, or to smell hot or cold food.
Some allergies are so severe, that just a small assumption of the allergen would cause anaphylaxis, and in the worst-case scenario death, if not cured promptly. Allergy detection service dogs with their presence offer additional security to people affected by severe allergies, helping them live their lives with more ease and a higher feeling of safety.
7. Autism Service Dogs
Autism Service Dogs often offer their services to autistic children, but adults affected by autism can be assisted by an autism service dog as well. When assisting children, autism service dogs are beneficial in helping with them with social interaction, to build up confidence. They also help prevent the kid from wandering, can prevent or placate emotional meltdowns, and can stop repetitive and harmful behavior. Through their daily interaction, they encourage verbal communication, sensory stimulation, and focus.
Dog breeds more adapted to be trained as autism service dogs are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Labradoodles, Great Pyrenees, Old English Sheepdogs.
8. Seizure Alert Dogs
Seizure Alert service Dogs assist people affected by epilepsy in a number of ways. They alert others when a seizure occurs, to protect their assisted, they soften their fall by placing their body between the seizing subject and the floor, and when the subject is lying on the floor, the Seizure Dog will lie next to assisted to prevent injuries.
Although there is no scientific proof or understanding, Seizure Alert Dogs seem able to recognize when a seizure is imminent, and alert before it starts its devastating effects. This makes them even more precious and useful. Might just be another of dogs’ mysterious superpowers we know so little about.
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