August 7 – 13, 2016 is International Assistance Dog Week, created in 2009 by an author, CEO and paraplegic who wanted to honor the impact service dogs have on the lives of the disabled. Until recently, the most common type of service dog seen in public assisted the blind or hearing impaired, helping them navigate the world and maintain their independence. Recent events, which include changes to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the growing number of war veterans returning home with PTSD, have brought the work that service animals do increasingly into the public eye. This growing visibility has expanded the ways service dogs can help seniors, including those not just with seizure disorders and diabetes, but mental health issues and dementia, too. Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones know that very special assistance dogs bring companionship, mobility, and greater independence into their lives.

What is a Service Dog?

Legally, a service animal is not a pet, but rather a dog with a job. Per the 2011 update to the ADA, only a dog that has been specifically trained to perform tasks or do work for someone with a disability can be called a “service animal.” Thanks to the unfortunate abuse of the ‘service animal’ label by people who just don’t want to leave FiFi at home by herself, some businesses and busybodies see fit to challenge legitimate service dogs. This is both illegal and dangerous to the disabled person the dog is assisting. True service animals are extremely well-trained, and allow their human partners to go to stores, restaurants, transportation and public spaces they might not otherwise be able to navigate on their own. Seniors who want to maintain their independence in the face of vision, hearing or balance impairment can benefit from the assistance of a service dog. The fight against Alzheimer’s has expanded for dementia patients, and a service dog can keep them safer, more cognitively stimulated, and more socially engaged with their community – because everyone loves dogs!

Kinds of Service Dogs

Service dogs are now assisting humans with all kinds of conditions, and their willingness to work, and love of humans means that the ways service dogs can help people through life is only growing. Here’s a short list of the kinds of assistance dogs you may see:

  • Guide Dog: the original service dog, who assists the vision impaired
  • Mobility Dog: helps people walk, balance, and transfer, as well as retrieve items, push buttons, and open doors
  • Hearing Alert Dog: assists people with hearing loss to sounds like sirens, alarms, doorbells, phones
  • Seizure Alert/Seizure Response Dog: also called Medical Alert Dogs, these dogs can sense a seizure on the way, and can either get help or stay and guard
  • Medical Alert/Medical Response Dogs: these dogs can sense many oncoming medical conditions, like panic attack, anxiety attack, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Dementia Support Dogs: these dogs keep their human from wandering away from home, have a collar with a GPS marker for searchers if they do get lost, and stay with their human to bark to attract attention.

Service Dog Etiquette

Yes, everyone loves service dogs, but just as you should never approach a ‘civilian’ dog without its owner’s permission, you should never approach a service dog while it’s on the job. Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t pet a Service Dog without permission
  • Don’t make noises at a Service Dog while it’s working; you may cause it to miss a crucial signal that its human is relying on to keep it safe
  • Don’t feed a Service Dog (or any dog, really), as you don’t know what it eats, or when
  • Don’t ask the human what their disability is – that’s illegal – and don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk about what the Service Animal does for them.

There are many ways you can support seniors and the service dogs that assist them, mainly by observing the Service Dog Etiquette tips above, and also by supporting the non-profits who work in the service dog field. Also, you can support International Assistance Dog Week while buying covetable dog supplies from Kurgo for 25% off with code IADW2016. Caregivers and home care aides know that loved ones just want to live a healthy, independent life, and more and more every day, assistance dogs are a furry, lovable part of that.