CVMA-ACMV

Service Animals

April 28, 2005

Service animals are amazing helpers that assist those with challenges in their daily tasks. Service animals are on call 24 hours a day for their handlers! These selfless animals (most commonly dogs) are hard working buddies for those looking for better ways to live independently, and as an added benefit, service animals also provide close companionship! The bond between a service animal and its handler is very strong. 

The training of a service animal is a result of careful selection of a suitable young candidate, placement in a loving foster home during early development, and finally, intensive training is carried out to help the animal flawlessly perform specific service tasks. The final training phase for service animals usually takes six to twelve months. Once a service animal is trained, it undergoes orientation sessions with its new human family.

Service animals calmly and efficiently carry out assistance under sometimes very difficult circumstances. These animals remain focused on the task at hand even in noisy milling crowds, heavy traffic, bad weather or slick footing. Their loyalty is rewarded by lots of TLC, and they are happy because they are challenged every day. Service animals seem to pride themselves in a job well done. Some organizations underwrite part or all of the costs associated with training a service pet. Service dogs are allowed by law to enter any public facility or method of public transportation including trains and buses. 

If you meet a person with a "service dog in training" vest on, do not approach the accompanying dog and pet it without the OK of their trainer. As a training dog’s training is highly structured, your attention may not be the right thing for the dog at that particular stage of their training. Many dog breeds have been used as service dogs, but Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are very popular choices.

Here are some examples of some highly-trained service animals and the valuable services they provide for their handlers:

Guide Dogs: Also commonly called seeing-eye dogs, these dogs can help their blind handlers navigate difficult situations where footing is uneven, up or down stairs, through heavy traffic, and along irregular walking paths.

Guide Ponies: Miniature horses (50-100 lb or 23-45 kg) have been successfully trained as guide animals both for mobility assistance and as seeing-eye horses. They are less than 26" or 66 cm high, so they are the same size as a large dog. They are able to help their handler avoid hazards just like dogs! Elevators, escalators, taxis, buses and stairs are not barriers for these hardy helpers. Miniatures are not for everyone since they need a bit more room than a dog. For someone allergic to dogs, ponies provide an excellent alternative. Some people who are afraid of dogs take to these pygmy or mini horses very well. Horses don't get fleas either!

Guide ponies are trained to ask to be let out to relieve themselves just like dogs, and are fitted with soft booties to wear while in the home. Some like to sleep on their handlers' bed like a cat! A bonus is that their lifespan is usually almost three times as long as an average dog (about 35 years versus 14 years), so they are well suited for those who want a long-term buddy. Horses also provide greater strength and stability for mobility tasks such as helping their handler rise from a chair or move to their bed. Ponies go through the same type of training as police horses to help them learn to tolerate lots of noise and bustle.

Hearing dogs: These dogs can are assigned many tasks. For example, if the doorbell or telephone rings, they will alert their owner and direct them to the source of the noise. Horses are not useful for this type of assistance.

Mobility Assistance Service Dogs: For those in a wheelchair with limited mobility, or those otherwise restricted in their movements, these animals can help with routine tasks such as picking the phone up off the cradle, pulling wheelchairs, alert barking, finding a person, turning lights off and on, opening and closing doors, reaching towels and other items and bringing them to the handler.

Next time you see a handler with a trained service animal out in your community, take time to appreciate how much time and energy goes into training these valuable helpers.  Animals play many important roles in our lives, and service animals provide life-sustaining assistance each and every day, with only a loving home, food (perhaps some treats), an affectionate pat, and kind words expected in return!

Many veterinarians are involved in service animal veterinary care, and your veterinarian can provide you with contact addresses for more information about service animals.