Do you know what it’s like to be disabled, to face daily challenges in completing tasks that others around you take for granted? This may mean that you have difficulties fitting into a world designed for the convenience of those without disabilities. It can be frustrating to be forced to rely on the help of another individual, especially when the disability developed as a result of an injury or other trauma. You may feel discouraged by all of the things that you are no longer able to do. For some, such as those who suffer from paralyzing anxiety attacks or agitation, the disability is an emotional one rather than a strictly physical consequence.
The joyous moments of your life shouldn’t be limited by a disability.
What if there was a user-friendly medical device that enhanced your abilities and made up for the things that you are no longer able to do? For the visually impaired, this device could be your eyes. For the hearing-impaired, the device would be your ears. If you cannot move, the device will open doors, power your wheelchair, and pick up dropped items. The device can react to or even predict urgent crises, like the onset of seizures or anxiety attacks. For those who simply need calming, reassuring, or uplifting contact, the device can offer affection and even love. That’s because the device isn’t a machine, a virtual monitor, or even a robot. It’s an assistance animal. If you have a loved one suffering from a disability, or if you are disabled yourself, an assistance animal – either a service dog or a therapy animal – may just be the help you have been looking for all along. Assistance animals aren’t only for the visually impaired. For that matter, they’re not even always dogs.
Assistance animals come in two breeds. Service dogs are serious working dogs that are committed to helping a single disabled owner cope with specific tasks made difficult by physical or mental disabilities. Therapy animals – including critters of all types, large or small – bring therapeutic relief to injured or ill patients, either in a home or in a medical facility.
A guide dog for the visually impaired falls under the category of service dogs, but other service dogs aid the hearing-impaired, those with limited mobility, or those with other, less apparent medical conditions or disabilities. Officially, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog that guides, signals, alerts, or protects owners, pulls a wheelchair, or retrieves dropped items. If your loved one suffers from visual or auditory impairment or one of the following conditions, a service animal may be able to help.
Individuals who have been left with impaired mobility as a result of an accident, injury, illness or other medical condition may have difficulty getting around on a daily basis. For patients with decreased mobility, everyday tasks can be nearly impossible to complete without help. Imagine working, taking care of your family, or even dressing yourself without use of your arms. When an automobile collision, a fall-related injury, or another accident has limited your mobility, you may be forced to rely on others for help.
Service dogs allow patients with mobility impairments to have more independence. A service animal can be trained to open doors and pick up dropped objects. For wheelchair-bound patients, a service dog can even pull the wheelchair. Having a well-trained service dog allows the disabled to live as similar a lifestyle to before the injury occurred as possible. For disabled patients who do not require constant medical attention, the help of a service dog may mean the difference between continuing to enjoy the comforts of home or being forced to move into an assisted living facility.
A seizure is a frightening experience in which a patient suffers them the effects of abnormal electrical brain activity, according to the National Library of Health. Seizures are often characterized by convulsions, or uncontrollable body shaking and muscle contractions, mild seizures may manifest as staring spells instead of convulsions. Other startling symptoms of a seizure may include blackouts, confusion, falling, dramatic mood changes, and difficulty breathing that can last for as long as 15 minutes. Because a seizure can be incapacitating, patients who suffer from uncontrollable seizures may not be able to complete potentially hazardous task alone. If an individual were to have a seizure while driving, operating heavy machinery, or while working at a high height, for example, the consequences could be disastrous to the patient’s health, as well as endangering the safety of others.
Among the more common causes of seizures are brain injuries and epilepsy. A traumatic brain injury typically results from physical damage such as those sustained in a motor vehicle crash or a fall. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder, sometimes but not always caused by head injuries, in which patients suffer recurrent seizures. While seizures may be preceded by feelings of nausea, vertigo, anxiety, and unusual visual symptoms, they can be unpredictable – at least, for humans.
Some service dogs are believed to have predictive abilities when it comes to seizures. The evidence regarding these seizure-predicting dogs is debatable. Most reports constitute only the personal accounts of individuals, not scientific research or review. In a 1998 study, only about 10 percent of the dog-owning seizure patients studied reported personal convictions that their dogs were able to predict their seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
In addition to protecting owner during convulsions, seizure alert service dogs can be trained to help owners with a variety of tasks. In this clip, a service dog named Jay helps his owner do laundry.
Still, even if cases of successful seizure-predicting dogs are rare, their value to disabled owners is priceless. Imagine a seizure-prone patient is driving when a convulsion occurs. By predicting the seizure before it starts, the dog can ensure that its owner pulls over immediately, preventing a potentially deadly collision.
Even more success has been reported with seizure-response dogs. These service animals may be trained to recognize the signs of a seizure and do anything from tripping an alarm system in order to get help to breaking the patient’s fall with their own bodies.
While they may not be immediately apparent disabilities, syndromes like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and panic attacks can be debilitating. Psychiatric service dogs help calm individuals suffering from these disorders, but it’s not as simple as just petting a dog until you feel better. These dogs help mental health patients avoid situations that may trigger attacks, cope with stressors and symptoms, and get assistance when needed. Some tasks that a psychiatric service dog assists with include:
Not every animal can be a service animal. The American Disabilities Act has been updated to include only dogs as service animals. The distinction of being a service animal, rather than just a helpful or well-trained pet, is that the animal is considered as necessary as any other “medical device” for the patient’s health and safety. Federal law permits service animals to accompany disabled owners into any areas in public and commercial properties where customers or guests would normally be permitted, regardless of the property owner’s policy on pets.
As working dogs with a serious job to do, service animals are not pets. Owners may enjoy the dog’s company and form deep bonds with the animal, but a working dog can’t afford to be distracted while on the clock. As much as dogs love attention and affection, playtime typically has to wait until their fun won’t jeopardize their owner’s safety.
Therapy animals, on the other hand, frequently are pets. Human volunteers specially train their own friendly cats, dogs, and other pets, then bring them into hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers to visit with sick or injured patients. In other settings, specialists use animals to help mental health patients, patients with developmental disorders, and military officers, either on active deployment or upon returning home.
While therapy animals do not bear the life-or-death responsibility of protecting a single disabled patient from dangers, they have the opportunity to make a difference to hundreds of patients over their careers as therapy animals. Any animal lover knows that spending time with a pet can make you feel more cheerful and less stressed after a long day. For patients nursing critical illnesses and injuries, the positive emotional effects can make a big impact on overall health. Animal therapy makes patients “more receptive to medical treatment,” according to the American Red Cross. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures, like the affection of an animal, that remind us how joyful life can be. In the cases of suffering patients, that reminder may be the motivation to pursue additional therapies, try a rehabilitation exercise one more time, and simply make the choice not to give up.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes only dogs as service animals, non-human animal therapy participants come in all kinds. Some therapy animals are your run-of-the-mill loving pets:
Other therapy animals are more exotic:
In fact, a Florida family’s private emotional therapy pig made headlines recently when city authorities threatened to impose a $500 per day fine on the family for breaking local ordinances by keeping a pig, according to WIVB News. The six-pound miniature pig, named Twinkie, reportedly helps calm a young boy with Down syndrome. Due to allergies within the family, getting a more traditional emotional therapy animal, like a dog or cat, was not a possibility. After months of debate, the city has agreed to allow the little boy to keep his therapy pig. It’s a victory for the family, for Twinkie, and for therapy animals everywhere.
Though service animals are permitted by law to go anywhere that their human owners need to go, at times businesses can be guilty of miscommunication or downright dismissal toward the disabled. In June 2012, a Millville, N.J., Wawa store landed itself in hot water after its treatment of an Army veteran with a service dog. The veteran, Patrick Stark, sustained a brain injury in a mugging three years ago, and the service dog, a Queensland heeler named Copenhagen, helps him cope with the resulting seizures. The store manager told Stark that the dog was not permitted in the store, despite Copenhagen’s special tags and federal laws barring businesses from discriminating against disabled individuals with service dogs, according to ABC News. Wawa has been ordered to pay $12,500 to settle Stark’s claim, and to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future, the company reportedly announced plans to better educate staff on service dogs.
Service dogs may soon be gaining more legal protection under Dusty’s Law, a new measure that, if enacted, will create harsher penalties for negligent owners that allow their dogs to attack guide dogs. The proposed law is a response to the overwhelming amount of violence and interference that guide dogs and their disabled owners confront. In 2011, the Seeing Eye organization stated that in 44 percent of cases studied, human owners reported an attack on their dog by another animal, and 83 percent of these owners reported an occasion on which another animal interfered with their guide dogs doing their jobs, according to NJ.com.
If you or a loved one has suffered a disability as a result of an accident, a service dog or animal therapy visit may be able to help your family cope. If you are in a temporary or permanent inpatient facility, ask nurses or doctors if they have an animal therapy program. If there is not already a program in place, reach out to groups like the non-profit organization Pet Partners, which works tirelessly to improve training programs for therapy animals and handlers and educate healthcare providers on the most effective way to incorporate animal therapy into their patients’ treatment plans.
There are many organizations that train service dogs, but be prepared for a potentially lengthy process. After all, service dogs need to go through extensive training to be able to reliably help and protect a human owner. Find a local chapter of a reputable organization that trains assistance dogs to help individuals with your particular disability, like The Seeing Eye organization for the visually impaired.
The unconditional love of a pet can be an extraordinary gift, but when dogs (and cats, horses, pigs, and the like) go the extra mile to serve and protect individuals with physical or mental disabilities, the phrase “man’s best friend” takes on a whole new meaning.