Two golden retriever service dogs rest in the shade while taking a break from their respective jobs.  Each dog has a saddle bag on his back, identifying him as a therapy service dog, and both pets are looking at the camera.Dogs have existed and worked alongside us for more than 14,000 years, offering us protection and assisting us in the hunt for food and shelter. New research reveals that this relationship with canines was as beneficial to canines as it was to us humans.
Research tells us that many animals (and not just canines) are at their best when they are allowed to “work” or engage in mentally and physically challenging activities alongside us. One way we benefit from a mutually beneficial relationship is with service animals. These attuned animals are trained to aid differently abled individuals by providing assistance in daily living and in the recovery process.

Service Animal Defined

Not all pets who provide services are legally recognized as a service animal. By definition, a service animal is one that… “is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Emotional support animals or pets that are not trained specifically to serve someone with a recognized disability do not fall into the service animal category.

Service animals are given legal privileges that other pets do not receive. For example, business must allow service animals on their premises, even though they may not allow pets otherwise, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How Animals Provide Support

Now that we have covered the definition of service animal vs. therapeutic or emotional support pet, we can get into the really cool ways dogs and other animals make the difference between surviving and thriving for many individuals.

Service Animals

Service animals provide a range of services for those whose disabilities limit their ability to thrive. Some common tasks provided by service animals include:

  • Navigation and vision support
  • Hearing support (alerting individual to crosswalk alerts, phone calls, door bells, and smoke detectors, among other alerts)
  • Retrieving medications
  • Supporting an individual experiencing a seizure

Over the past few decades, the definition of service animal has been broadened to also include animals trained to support soldiers who are clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. PTSD service dogs can help to lessen disassociate episodes and nightmares, as well as provide physical intervention to reduce panic attacks and agoraphobia.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals do not need to meet the rigid training protocols that service dogs do. They do need especially gentle dispositions and to have been socialized to provide comfort and companionship. Support animals range from dogs and cats to guinea pigs and miniature donkeys, providing gentle, nonjudgmental interaction for those living with depression, a terminal illness, grief, and other difficulties.

Equine Therapy

Equine therapy is a specialized form of animal-assisted therapy that uses horses to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth. Equine therapy has been especially effective in helping those with physical and cognitive disabilities to enhance mobility and motor skills, as well as instill trust and confidence.

As pet guardians, we are not surprised by the unconditional love and amazing ability of animals to provide emotional and physical support. While canines are traditionally the animals most often used for supportive services, we are discovering that many other species also have the ability to forge a human-animal bond and benefit humans in through service work.

It’s exciting to see animals being championed as not just loving pets but also as valuable members of our families and communities. Their contributions exceed our imaginations through their unique and wondrous abilities to help humans.