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Types of Assistance Dogs: Who They Are and What They Do

May 05, 2021 3 min read
dog being pet by someone in a wheelchair

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 defines an assistance dog as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items."  Assistance dogs are usually used in three different ways: hearing dogs, guide dogs, and service dogs.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs assist deaf and hearing-impaired Americans with day-to-day tasks by alerting them of noises that need attention, such as an alarm clock, a baby crying or a doorbell. These dogs interact daily through physical contact and are usually marked by their orange collars or vests.

Hearing dogs can be selectively bred dogs or mixed breeds taken from a rescue or shelter. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels are common hearing aid dogs, as well as some terrier mixes. Pedigree, however, is less important than trainability and temperament in the ideal assistance dog.

Guide Dogs

Blind and visually impaired Americans use Guide Dogs to help them navigate the world. Tasks like stopping at curbs, stairs, and generally avoiding obstacles are some of the main functions of a guide dog. These dogs wear a harness with a U-shaped handle for communication between the dog and the handler. Guide dogs are most commonly selectively bred as Labrador and Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds.

Guide dogs are very specifically paired with their handlers. A person’s lifestyle, hobbies, activity level, and more go into the pairing process when someone applies for a guide dog. Through training and relationship-building, these guide dogs can provide a sense of independence for their handlers.

Service Dogs

Service Dogs are used to assist many different types of impairments or ailments and have emotional and psychological benefits. These can include mental disabilities such as PTSD or “alert” dogs, which are trained to sense a diabetic’s low blood sugar, or an epileptic’s oncoming seizure. Service dogs can even be trained to work with people in wheelchairs to open doors or retrieving an out of reach object. Service dogs are can be bred selectively or rescued from an animal shelter. A backpack or harness usually denotes a service dog.

Most Assistance Dogs are trained as puppies by programs or individuals for a myriad of tasks that are meant to make up for the person’s disability. However, since each handler is different, each assistance dog will spend time with their future handler to maximize the overall bond and therefore effectiveness with their owner. These dogs are also chosen for their good temperaments and ability to be trained easily.

The federal government states that assistance dogs be required to go anywhere that a handler goes and cannot be refused service or discriminated against because of their dog. When they’re in public, the handler may ask those in the public not to pet their dog. Each dog is taught to know when they are working and when they aren’t, and act appropriately. Because of this, most handlers ask that people treat their service dogs as working dogs in public. The safety of the handler is paramount to the service dog, so it is trained not to give in to distraction. When work is over and their gear is taken off, these dogs become dogs again and are relaxed and friendly.

When assistance dogs have served 8 to 10 years they retire. They can stay with their handlers, but if the handler isn’t able to care for this dog and their successor, the dog is usually “re-homed.” A re-homing process for an assistance dog is usually a very easy process because they are already very well trained.

Assistance dogs truly change the lives of the people they help. The freedoms these dogs help bestow upon their owners is a marvelous gift. Best Bully Sticks salutes these hard-working animals and the people they serve.

To read about other dogs and training tips, check out our blog.

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