Image via Pamela Au/Shutterstock
By Helen Anne Travis
When most people hear the phrase “service dog,” they likely picture a pup leading someone with a visual impairment down the street. And while that is one of the amazing things a service dog can become certified to do, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
There’s actually a wide variety of types of service dogs that can help their handlers in some really extraordinary ways. Here are eight amazing ways service dogs can be trained to help people lead more independent lives.
Service Dogs Can Guide the Visually Impaired
Let’s start with the task we most associate with service dogs: helping people with visual impairments live independently. In addition to guiding their owner down the street and sidewalk, these dogs also ensure that their handler doesn’t get hit by a car when crossing the road, says Kim Hyde, the service dog program manager at Southeastern Guide Dogs.
They also have to stay alert for obstacles. Because most humans are taller than their pets, these dog can be trained to not just look for barriers on the ground, but also ones several feet above their heads. They also have to be hyperaware of changes in the terrain—for example, when they’re about to step from grass onto a sidewalk—so their owner doesn't stumble or trip, says Hyde.
Service Dogs Can Help People Experiencing PTSD and Anxiety
Dogs are excellent at reading body language, says Hyde. Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to alert their owner if she or he is exhibiting behaviors that indicate an upcoming anxiety or panic attack. This might include obsessive scratching, twitching, rocking back and forth, and heavy breathing.
The dog may then attempt to interrupt the attack by providing pressure to their owner's lap to slow their breathing. If the person experiences attacks in tight, crowded spaces, a service dog can be trained to lead their owner to a door to get them out into the fresh air, she says.
These dogs can even be trained to literally watch your back, says Dr. Mary Burch, animal behaviorist and the director of the AKC Canine Good Citizen program. People experiencing PTSD may get nervous if someone is walking too close behind them, she says. A service dog can alert their owner that someone is approaching to prevent a shock.
“They’re like eyes on the back of your head,” says Dr. Burch.
They Can Get Help If Someone Is About to Have a Seizure
Seizure service dogs are taught to recognize the signs that an individual might be about to experience a seizure and encourage their owner to lie down or put on a helmet. They can also get the person help during a seizure, if needed, by barking or pushing an emergency alert button, says Dr. Burch.
Most seizure service dogs wear special vests with a pouch that contains instructions for what to do during an emergency. If a person only needs someone to call a family member when they’re experiencing a seizure instead of 911, the note attached to their service dog can save them thousands of dollars on an unnecessary ambulance ride, says Hyde.
Service Dogs Can Help With Everyday Chores
Dogs can help open doors, help someone in a wheelchair hand their credit card to a cashier, and even move laundry from the washer to the dryer, says Hyde.
Dr. Burch remembers hearing about a woman who had a strong visual impairment. Before she got her service dog, her family might come home from an outing to find her hungry, alone and sitting in the dark. After she got her service dog, they would return to find her sitting with lights on, listening to music and eating a snack.
They Can Alert People Who Are Deaf That There’s an Emergency
If someone is deaf or partially deaf, a service dog can alert them to everything from a knock at the door to a fire alarm. Depending on the situation, trainers may also help the dogs recognize the sound of a child crying, says Dr. Burch.
Service Dogs Can Help People With Diabetes
Dogs have an amazing ability to sense changes in our blood sugar and body chemicals, says Hyde. Diabetes service dogs can help notify their handler if their blood sugar is dropping too low or even get help if it is needed. They can also be trained to retrieve snacks out of the fridge.
They Can Help People With Food Allergies
Dogs’ incredible sense of smell can also help prevent people with food allergies from eating something that could cause them harm. Dogs can be trained to alert us about everything from the presence of gluten to peanuts in the food we’re about to eat, says Hyde.
Service Dogs Can Help Build Their Handler’s Confidence
“People seem to skip the impact a service dog has on an individual’s social life,” says Hyde. “I can’t tell you how many marriages I’ve seen saved or how many people have said they didn't know how to interact with their children or children’s friends. And the service dog fixed that.”
Service dogs give their owners confidence and independence, she says, and the chance to talk about something other than their condition.
“They can have normal conversations and brag about their dog,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to talk about their dog?”
They can also give people who might be afraid to go out in public more confidence—and an excuse—to get out into the world, says Dr. Burch. “If you’ve got this 90-pound Lab that needs to go for a walk, you can’t help but get out in your community,” she says.