If you're someone with a disability, a service dog can be a game-changer in terms of gaining more independence and improving your quality of life. But how do you know if your disability qualifies you for a service dog? In this article, we'll explore the different types of disabilities that may be eligible for a service dog, the tasks these dogs can perform, and the process of obtaining one. Whether you're considering getting a service dog for yourself or simply curious about the topic, this article will provide you with the information you need.
What Disabilities Qualify for a Service Dog? - A Complete Guide
Service dogs are typically trained to assist individuals with disabilities that substantially limit their ability to perform major life activities. Common qualifying disabilities include visual impairments, mobility challenges, hearing impairments, seizure disorders, diabetes, and various mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Qualifying Disabilities for Service Dogs: At a Glance
Service dogs can provide valuable assistance for individuals with a variety of disabilities, but not all disabilities may qualify for a service dog. Common disabilities that may qualify include physical disabilities, such as blindness or mobility impairments, and psychiatric disabilities, such as PTSD or anxiety disorders. However, each individual's situation is unique, and the decision of whether to use a service dog should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional and a reputable service dog organization.
What Is a Service Dog?
A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog of any size or breed that performs a particular task for someone with a disability (physical or mental health-related).
The ADA offers service dogs specific protections and privileges that other dogs (including emotional support animals) do not get.
For example, service dogs can accompany their owners into restaurants, stores, and other public places. They can also fly with their owners on airplanes and are permitted in apartment buildings that don’t allow pets.
Types of Service Dogs
The ADA includes two types of service dogs: Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) and service dogs for people with physical disabilities.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
A psychiatric service dog has been trained to perform a task that supports a person with a mental health condition. For example, if a person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their PSD may be trained to provide deep pressure therapy (DPT) by laying on top of them to help them calm down during a panic attack or flashback.
Service Dogs for Physical Disabilities
A service dog for someone with a physical disability performs a task that the person can’t do themselves. For example, a person with a wheelchair might have a service dog that retrieves objects that are difficult for them to reach on their own.
What Disabilities Qualify for a Service Dog?
People with a wide range of physical and mental health disabilities can benefit from service dogs.
You may qualify for a mental health service dog if you have a diagnosed mental health condition, such as:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
A licensed mental health professional must diagnose you with a mental health disorder — and specify how your condition interferes with at least one aspect of your life — before you can qualify for a psychiatric service dog.
Many people with physical disabilities can also benefit from service dogs. The following are some of the most well-known conditions that service dogs assist with:
- Cerebral palsy
- Chronic fatigue or pain
- Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Spinal cord injuries
A physician or another professional can help you decide if a service dog will benefit you and what specific tasks they can perform. They can also offer resources to help you obtain a service dog.
How Does a Service Dog Help Their Handler?
Service dogs perform a wide range of tasks for their handlers. The following are some of the most well-known service dog tasks they may carry out:
Service dogs provide numerous physical support tasks for those with limited mobility — such as those in wheelchairs or those who use walkers and other assistive devices. Examples of physical support tasks include:
- Opening and closing doors
- Turning lights on and off
- Picking up objects off the ground
- Retrieving items from different locations
- Providing balance assistance as the owner transitions from their wheelchair to another position
- Unloading laundry from the dryer
- Paying cashiers
- Pressing buttons (elevator buttons, handicapped accessible buttons, etc.)
People with epilepsy and other seizure disorders can benefit from service dogs. These dogs may perform the following tasks:
- Alerting owners before a seizure occurs so they can get somewhere safe
- Seeking additional help after the episode is over
- Lying close to the person having the attack or positioning themselves under the person’s head
A service dog can help people with diabetes know when their blood sugar levels have changed so they can administer an injection or take the appropriate medication. They can also be trained to retrieve a phone or use a dog-friendly telephone to call an ambulance or someone else who can provide help.
Guide dogs help those who are blind or have impaired vision. They act as their owner’s eyes and guide them through public places, making sure they can cross the street safely, navigate stores and other locations, etc.
Hearing dogs assist deaf and hard-of-hearing people. They respond to specific audio cues and alert their owner. For example, they might let them know that someone rang the doorbell or that a fire alarm is going off.
Psychiatric service dogs can retrieve medication and call for help, just like service dogs trained to help those with physical disabilities. They can also provide deep pressure therapy and tactile stimulation (licking the owner’s hand or face to help them calm down).
Psychiatric service dogs often perform crowd-control tasks, too. They may circle their owner to keep people from getting too close or lay down in front of the owner to act as a barrier.
How to Qualify for a Service Dog?
To qualify for a service dog, you must have either a mental or physical disability that interferes with at least one aspect of your life. You may also need to get an official diagnosis from a healthcare provider (such as a physician or licensed therapist).
How to Get a Service Dog
There are a few ways one can go about getting a service dog. They may purchase a puppy bred specifically for service dog tasks, or they may buy or adopt a puppy or older dog.
For a dog to act as a service dog, it must go through extensive training to ensure it can reliably perform a particular behavior whenever its owner needs their support.
The following are some of the most common options for getting and training a service dog:
Online Service Dog Training
During online service dog training, an owner and their dog will work with a trainer remotely, communicating via phone and video chat. During the training program, the trainer will observe the dog and help the owner teach them specific tasks related to the owner’s disability and unique needs.
In-Person Service Dog Training
In-person service dog training, as the name suggests, takes place in person. The trainer might come to the dog owner’s house or ask the owner to come to them at a training facility or another location.
Purchase a Trained Service Dog
Purchasing a trained service dog is the most expensive option. However, it also reduces the amount of training the dog owner has to do.
Of course, the owner must continuously work with the dog to build a relationship and ensure the dog can consistently perform specific tasks. Still, the dog will have already mastered the basics beforehand.
Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs
An emotional support animal or ESA is different from a service dog. ESAs provide their owners with comfort and support during stressful times. However, it’s their presence that is comforting and supportive, rather than any specific tasks they perform.
Since ESAs don’t go through the same rigorous training as service dogs, they don’t have the same privileges and protections. For example, ESAs aren’t allowed in as many public places, such as certain stores and restaurants.
However, with the proper documentation, ESAs can stay with owners in apartments that don’t typically allow animals. They may also be allowed to fly in the airplane cabin with their owner instead of being stowed in the cargo area.