Paws In Service – How Service Dogs Could Assist Persons With Disabilities

Many of us have probably heard of dogs being deployed to search for disaster survivors or helping the police track down drugs and explosives. In some countries, dogs are also [...]

Many of us have probably heard of dogs being deployed to search for disaster survivors or helping the police track down drugs and explosives. In some countries, dogs are also trained to provide assistance to persons with disabilities and those with medical conditions. This kind of assistance dogs are known as ‘service dogs’. Ms Poh Sho Siam, senior analyst of SPD’s advocacy team, shows us ‘man’s best friend’ at work.

Guide Dogs

Photo of a guide dog
Guide dogs are trained to assist owners who have vision impairment to navigate around places by avoiding stationary obstacles like lamp posts and pillars, avoiding collision with moving objects such as bicycles and strollers, stepping around hazards like open manholes and potholes, and stopping at kerbs and steps, etc. Guide dogs are also conditioned to ‘intelligently disobey’ a command when the command would lead to danger, for instance, walking into traffic or over the edge of a drop-off

Hearing Ear Dogs

Poster of Hearing Ear Dogs
Hearing ear dogs are schooled to alert owners who have hearing impairment to the presence of people or sounds like someone calling their owner’s name, baby crying, doorbells, alarm clock, telephone, smoke alarms, police and emergency vehicle sirens and car horns, etc.

Mobility Assistance Dogs

Photo of a mobility assistance dog helping it owner

Mobility assistance dogs can enhance self-sufficiency and independent living by assisting persons with physical disabilities or elderly who have difficulty walking with various day-to-day tasks. They could help with retrieving dropped items, turning on or off light switches, opening or closing doors, pressing elevator buttons, undressing by pulling on clothing, acting as brace when transferring from wheelchair to bed, pulling wheelchair up inclines and ramps, carrying items in a dog backpack and many more.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Service Dogs

Photo of a PTSD dog
Dogs provide friendship, companionship and comfort to their owners. In the United States, they are especially helpful to veterans who were injured and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from war. In addition to mobility assistance, these dogs also provide emotional support and a focal point in life to break out of depression and anxiety cycles. The dogs give them a good reason to get out of the house, spend time outdoors and meet new people. Dogs could also be taught to interrupt repetitive or compulsive behaviours such as waking their owners from nightmares and learning to recognise early signs of anxiety which re-focuses their owners before the onset of anxiety or panic attacks.

Autism Assistance Dogs

Photo of an autistic child and an autism assistance dog

Autism assistance dogs act as constant companions and emotional anchors for children with autism in order to help them improve in their communication and social interaction skills. The service dog could be tethered to the child in public places to prevent the child from bolting or running into danger, such as in front of a car, or track down a child who has wandered away and lead adults to the missing child. They could also interrupt or stop a particular behaviour of the child and replace the behaviour with child-and-dog interaction. These dogs offer a calming influence and consistency when the child’s anxiety or fear rises in an unfamiliar environment. They also serve as ice-breakers during interaction with other children. Taking care of the dog helps the child to develop empathy, a sense of independence and empowerment and the child may transfer the social relationship that he/she has been built up with the dog to the people in their environment.

Medical Service Dogs

Photo of a medical service dog

Medical service dogs are taught to assist persons based on the recognition of symptoms pertaining to a specific medical condition. Examples of these dogs include diabetic alert dogs and seizure alert dogs.

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to get their owners’ attention when they smell the chemical changes in their owners’ body, for example through breath or sweat, as the insulin levels increase or drop, so that their owners could take steps to return their blood sugar to normal. The dogs could alert others if the owner becomes unresponsive and needs assistance, bring objects such as medicine or phone, or act as brace if the owner needs assistance sitting or standing.

Seizure alert dogs may be able to detect minute changes in body movement and body odour and alert their owners of an impending seizure, giving their owners an opportunity to move to a safe place to take medication and call for help. They could also perform tasks during or following a seizure, such as pulling objects away from the owner’s body that may be potentially dangerous, summoning help by finding another person or activating a pre-programmed phone, staying with their owners through the seizure or attempting to rouse the unconscious owner during or after seizure.

Not only do service dogs provide physical help to their owners, they could improve their owners’ wellbeing and quality of life with their unconditional and non-judgemental love. A point to note is that when a service dog is working, it needs to stay focused on its owner. Diverting the dog’s attention may accidentally cause the owner to be hurt. So remember, although they can be really cute and adorable, do not pet or distract a service dog when you happen to see one.

Photo of a dog wearing "Please don't pet, Working dog" clothing
This content has been put together with references from several service dogs organisations’ websites.