K9 Companions for the Disabled: Learn About Service and Therapy Dogs

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Traditionally, dogs are pets that are appreciated for their companionship and affection. They are fully dependent on their human owners. Owners might be lonelier if the dogs weren’t around, but it wouldn’t affect their daily tasks. However, not all dogs are pets. Such is the case with assistance dogs, that is, those animals that undergo extensive training to be able to perform specific tasks. There are several types, but the two major categories are service dogs and therapy dogs.

The relationship between a disabled human being and their service dog is symbiosis. The dog helps the human perform tasks they would otherwise be unable to do and in exchange receives food, shelter, hygiene and love. Service dogs are not pets and are therefore legally permitted into grocery stores and housing that may otherwise not allow animals. However, the law does not apply if the dog is violent or serves as a serious health risk. It is not necessary for a service dog to wear a vest or tag, but many owners choose to dress their dog anyway so others can identify it. Regardless of identification, many people, especially children, do not know proper behavior when a service dog is in the vicinity. Some will try to pet it or speak to it, effectively distracting it from doing the work for which it is intended. This behavior should be discouraged by the owner through the use of verbal explanation or etiquette cards. Service dogs are generally German Shepherds, Labradors or Golden Retrievers.

Therapy dogs are different from service dogs in that they haven’t been trained to assist humans with a variety of activities. Instead, these dogs are stress relievers trained to be “bombproof” against the tugging and hugging of small children in hospitals. They’re also sometimes sent into nursing homes for the benefit of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike service dogs, most breeds can be a therapy dog with the right training.

The following links lead to assistance dog resources. Included is information about service dogs, their training and what they can be trained to do. There are answers to frequently asked questions about assistance animals. Also provided are specifics about the laws permitting their use as well as proper etiquette both for the owner and the onlooker. The last few links lead to information on how a qualifying individual can apply for an assistance animal.

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