by Lorraine Murray
The partnership between humans and animals dates back to the first domestication of animals in the Stone Age, as long as 9,000 years ago. But never have animals provided such dedicated and particular help to humans as they do today in the form of trained service, or assistance, to people with disabilities. These animals, usually dogs, help people accomplish tasks that would otherwise be prohibitively difficult or simply impossible. Service animals are not pets but working animals doing a job; thus, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) in the United States and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) in the United Kingdom makes service animals exempt from rules that prohibit animals from public places and businesses.
The most familiar service animals are guide dogs who help visually impaired people move about safely. Systematic training of guide dogs originated in Germany during World War I to aid blinded veterans. In the late 1920s Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog trainer living in Switzerland, heard of the program and wrote a magazine article about it. The publicity led her to her first student, Morris Frank, with whose help she established a similar training school in the United States in 1929, the Seeing Eye (now located in New Jersey).
Guide-dog puppies are often bred for the purpose by the various organizations that train dogs. German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and Labrador-golden retriever crosses are the most widely used breeds because of their calm temperaments, intelligence, natural desire to be helpful, and good constitutions. Puppies spend their first year with foster families who socialize them and prepare them for later training by teaching them basic obedience skills. At the age of approximately 18 months, guide dogs enter formal training, which lasts from about three to five months. During this period the dogs learn to adjust to a harness, stop at curbs, gauge the human partner’s height when traveling in low or obstructed places, and disobey a command when obedience will endanger the person.
In recent years, hearing dogs have become increasingly common. These dogs, usually mixed-breed rescues from animal shelters, are trained to alert their human partners to ordinary sounds such as an alarm clock, a baby’s cry, or a telephone. The dogs raise the alert by touching the partner with a paw and then leading him or her to the source of the sound. They are also trained to recognize danger signals such as fire alarms and sounds of intruders—again, by touching with a paw and then lying down in a special “alert” posture, at which time the human partner can take appropriate action.
Dogs can be trained for a great variety of assistance purposes. For example, Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation trains several categories of assistance animals, including service dogs, who help people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices; hearing dogs; seizure-alert or -response dogs, who help persons with seizure disorders by activating an electronic alert system when symptoms occur (some can even predict the onset of a seizure); and therapeutic companion dogs, who provide emotional support for people in hospices, hospitals, and other situations in which loneliness and lack of stimulation are continual problems. There are many programs that train and certify pet animals, especially dogs and cats, as “therapy animals” who visit such institutions and bring much-welcomed companionship to patients.
Animals are also used in programs such as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). In the words of the Delta Society, AAT is a “goal-directed intervention” that utilizes the motivating and rewarding presence of animals, facilitated by trained human professionals, to help patients make cognitive and physical improvements. For example, an elderly patient in a nursing home might be given the task of buckling a dog’s collar or feeding small treats to a cat, activities that enhance fine motor skills. Goals are set for the patients, and their progress is measured.
Dogs and cats are not the only animals who can assist humans with disabilities. Capuchin monkeys—small, quick, and intelligent—can help people who are paralyzed or have other severe impairments to their mobility, such as multiple sclerosis. These monkeys perform essential tasks such as turning on lights and picking up dropped objects. One of the more unusual assistance animals is the guide horse. An experimental program in the United States trains miniature horses to guide the visually impaired in the same way that guide dogs do. The tiny horses may be an alternative for people who are allergic to dogs or who have equestrian backgrounds and are more comfortable with horses.
Certain dogs and other animals have special skills similar to those of the seizure-assistance dogs, such as the ability to detect a diabetic’s drop in blood sugar and alert the person before danger occurs. The sometimes uncanny natural abilities of animals can benefit humans in many ways. Reputable organizations that train assistance animals also take steps to ensure that the animals are cherished and lead rewarding, enjoyable, and healthy lives. When the animals’ helping careers are over, provision is made for their well-deserved retirement.
To Learn More
How Can I Help?
The Web sites listed above provide information on making donations and on applying to be a trainer or foster family or adopting a retired service animal.
Books We Like
Partners in Independence: A Success Story of Dogs and the Disabled
Ed Eames and Toni Eames (2nd ed., 2004)
Beyond dogs that guide the visually impaired there exists a panoply of other types of assistance dogs. They can alert epileptics to an impending seizure, open doors and retrieve objects for people who have limited mobility, or alert the hearing impaired to sounds and other environmental cues, making possible a greater level of independence and activity for people with disabilities of all kinds. The authors (who are legally blind) are educators and frequent contributors to dog publications who themselves benefit from partnership with such animals.
Partners in Independence is an upbeat and inspiring work on assistance dogs and the humans whose lives they benefit. It treats many facets of the subject, including the disability rights movement, caring for and traveling with assistance animals, the history of the assistance dog movement, and becoming a trainer. Stories on the experiences of individuals with their animal helpers enrich the narrative.
Service animals are animals that have been trained to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Service animals may also be referred to as assistance animals, assist animals, support animals, or helper animals depending on the country and the animal's function.
Dogs are the most common service animals, assisting people in many different ways since at least 1927. Other animals such as monkeys, birds, and horses have also been documented.
In places of public accommodation in the United States, only dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) are legally considered service animals. It is legal in certain states to have service "animals". For instance, in Montana all animals are allowed at state level. Many cats, birds, and even a wolf are working to help mitigate people's disabilities in Montana. It is also legal to train your own service animal in the United States. There is a broader definition for assistance animals under the US Fair Housing Act as well as a broader definition for service animals under the US Air Carrier Access Act. In the United States, prior to a revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act going into effect March 15, 2011 types of animals other than service dogs and miniature horses were protected at least on the Federal level; individual states could expand coverage.
The international assistance animal community has categorized three types of assistance animals:
- Guide animal—to guide the blind
- Hearing animal—to signal the hearing impaired
- Service animal—to do work for persons with disabilities other than blindness or deafness.
Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, guide dogs, other types of assistance dogs, and in cases miniature horses, are protected by law, and therefore may accompany their handlers in most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:
- In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits any business, government agency, or other organization that provides access to the general public from barring guide dogs. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access. Current federal regulations define "service animal" for ADA purposes to exclude all species of animals other than domestic dogs and miniature horses. Other laws, though, still provide broader definitions in other areas. For instance, the Department of Transportation's regulations enacting the Air Carrier Access Act permit "dogs and other service animals" to accompany passengers on commercial airlines. The Fair Housing Act also requires housing providers to permit service animals (including comfort and emotional support animals) without species restrictions in housing.
- Revised ADA Requirements: "Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA. A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Department’s revised ADA regulations have a new, separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. (Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds.) Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are (1) whether the miniature horse is housebroken; (2) whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control; (3) whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and (4) whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.",
- In most South American countries and Mexico, guide dog access depends solely upon the goodwill of the owner or manager. In more tourist-heavy areas, guide dogs are generally welcomed without problems. In Brazil, however, a 2006 federal decree requires allowance of guide dogs in all public and open to public places. The Brasília Metro has developed a program which trains guide dogs to ride it.
- In Europe, the situation varies by location. Some countries have laws that govern the entire country and sometimes the decision is left up to the respective regions.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects all assistance dog handlers. Current laws may not ensure that assistance dog users can always have their service animals present in all situations. Each state and territory has its own laws, which mainly pertain to guide dogs. Queensland has introduced the Guide Hearing and Assistance Dog Act 2009 that covers all certified assistance dogs.
- In Canada, guide dogs along with other service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed, as long as the owner is in control of them. Fines for denying a service animal access can be up to $3000 in Alberta, Canada.
- In South Korea, it is illegal to deny access to guide dogs in any areas that are open to the public. Violators are fined for no more than 2 million won.
Overall view of a service animal
Service animals can be of many species and come in many sizes. Dogs, cats, dolphins, miniature horses, monkeys, ducks, ferrets, and parrots have all been trained to perform specific duties of a service animal, though the type of animal that may be registered as a "service animal" may vary depending on legal definitions. The people that can qualify for a service animal can have a range of physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.
A guide animal is an animal specifically trained to assist visually impaired persons to navigate in public. These animals may be trained to open doors, recognize traffic signals, guide their owners safely across public streets, and navigate through crowds of people. A mobility animal may perform similar services for a person with physical disabilities, as well as assisting with balance or falling issues. Hearing animals are trained to assist hearing-impaired or deaf persons. These animals may be trained to respond to doorbells or a ringing phone or to tug their owners toward a person who is speaking to them. Mental health animals can be trained to provide deep-pressure therapy by lying on top of a person who may be suffering from PSTDflashbacks, overstimulation, or acute anxiety. Similarly, autism dogs have been recently introduced to recognize and respond to the needs of people with autism spectrum disorder; some persons with ASD state that they are more comfortable interacting with animals than with human caregivers due to issues regarding eye contact, touch, and socialization. Medical emergency animals can assist in medical emergency and perform such services as clearing an area in the event of a grand mal seizure, fetching medication or other necessary items, alerting others in the event of a medical episode; some may even be trained to call emergency services through use of a telephone with specially designed oversized buttons.
The animals also provide important companionship and emotional support for owners who might otherwise be isolated due to disability. The owners in turn often derive a sense of accomplishment and importance from attending to the needs of their animals.
Animals for individual assistance
Many service animals may be trained to perform tasks to help their disabled partners live independent lives. Such animals include:
- Seizure sensing dogs, trained to sense epileptic seizures in their partner. Dogs can support a litany of both physical and mental disabilities.
- Capuchin monkeys, which can be trained to perform manual tasks such as grasping items, operating knobs and switches, and turning the pages of a book.
A miniature horse can be trained to guide the blind, to pull wheelchairs, or as support for persons with Parkinson's disease.
A full-grown miniature horse can vary from 26” to 38”. There are two main registering organizations. The American Miniature Horse Association limits height to 34” whereas the American Miniature Horse Registry has a division for horses 34” to 38”.
There are a number of advantages of miniature horses as service animals. Miniature horses may be chosen by people whose religion considers dogs to be unclean or who have serious allergies to dogs, as well as phobias. Miniature horses have average lifespans of 30–40 years (longer than those of both service dogs and monkeys) and take 6 months to a year of training, done only by professional trainers.
Guide horse users report they typically are immediately recognized as a working service animal, whereas a dog may be mistaken for a pet. Miniature horses have been praised for their excellent range of vision (350 degrees), good memories, calm nature, focused demeanor, and good cost-effectiveness.
A helper monkey is a type of assistance animal, similar to an assistance dog, that is specially trained to help people with quadriplegia, severe spinal cord injuries, or other mobility impairments.
Helper monkeys are usually trained in schools by private organizations, taking 7 years to train, and are able to serve 25–30 years (two to three times longer than a guide dog).
After being socialized in a human home as infants, the monkeys undergo extensive training before being placed with an individual needing assistance. Around the house, the monkeys assist in daily living by doing tasks including microwaving food, washing their human's face, and opening drink bottles.
In 2010, the U.S. federal government revised its definition of service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Non-human primates are no longer recognized as service animals under the ADA. The American Veterinary Medical Association does not support the use of nonhuman primates as assistance animals because of animal welfare concerns, the potential for serious injury to people, and risks that primates may transfer dangerous diseases to humans.
- ^Harrison Eustis, Dorothy (November 5, 1927). "The Seeing Eye". Saturday Evening Post: 43.
- ^ abRevised ADA Requirements: Service Animals. US Department of Justice. 12 July 2011. Accessed 28 January 2014
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