The term “assistance dog” refers to many types of working dogs—more than most people realize, especially those not partnered with one or who don’t know anyone partnered with one. We want to offer some clarification to help people who are just starting to look into the possibility of an assistance dog partnership, as well as to inform the public.
It’s important to note that people partnered with an assistance dog have protected access and housing rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. Assistance dogs are classified as working animals, not pets, while other types are considered pets. Here’s more information about the differences between assistance, emotional support, and therapy dogs.
Assistance dogs are divided into three primary groups: guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs.
Guide Dogs and Hearing Dogs
Guide dogs help the blind and visually impaired navigate the world, avoid dangers in the environment, and complete daily living tasks. Hearing dogs perform similar jobs for the deaf and hearing impaired, particularly by alerting them with physical contact to important sounds in the environment and leading them to the source. Both types do so much to enhance their partners’ independence, freedom, and quality of life.
Guide dogs are undoubtedly the most familiar to the general public, largely because they’re the most traditional type of assistance dog. There’s a dog leading a blind man depicted in a first century mural, and written references to blind people being led by dogs go back to the mid-1500s. The first known attempts to formally train them took place in Paris around 1780. Interest continued sporadically, but guide dog training really came into its own during World War I, when there was a need to help many veterans blinded in combat.
Also, guide dogs are the most easily identifiable. No assistance dogs are required to wear any type of gear, vest, or identification, but because of the nature of their main tasks, guide dogs wear a harness with a handle for their partner.
“Service dogs” assist people with a far broader spectrum of disabilities than do “guide dogs” and “hearing dogs”. It’s often used as a synonym for assistance dog, but again, service dogs are actually a category of assistance dog.
Here are the most common types of service dogs:
- Mobility assistance dogs, including mobility support dogs and wheelchair assistance dogs, offer a wide range of help to people with disabilities that affect their ability to walk, maintain their balance, or otherwise get around safely. This can include providing bracing support, pulling a wheelchair, and performing a variety of tasks their partner struggles with due to impaired mobility.
- Medical alert dogs are trained to let their partners know about changes to vital signs, hormone level fluctuations, or other symptoms associated with their dangerous health condition
- Seizure alert and seizure response dogs are specialized types of medical service dogs; the former alert those with epilepsy or other seizure disorders of oncoming seizures, while the latter respond to seizures by holding their partner down through the attack, getting emergency help or medication, and providing other assistance; some dogs, commonly called seizure dogs, perform the work of both types
- Diabetic alert dogs are another specialized type of medical alert dog that let their partners know about dangerous spikes or dips in blood glucose levels, and they may call for emergency help if consciousness is lost
- Psychiatric service dogs provide emotional and physical support to those with PTSD, severe depression or anxiety disorders, and other psychiatric disorders (they differ significantly from emotional support animals in that they are highly trained to perform specific, important tasks that mitigate the disorder)
- Allergy alert dogs detect and alert their partners to the presence of life-threatening allergens in people with a history of anaphylaxis
- Autism assistance dogs provide calming emotional support, help with daily tasks, and offer other help to people (especially children) with a disorder on the autism spectrum
- Medical assistance dog is a generalized category used for service dogs that don’t fit well into other categories, and they help mitigate any number of disabilities in any number of ways by performing tasks for which they’re specially trained
Finding an Assistance Dog Provider
The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) is the major accrediting organization for guide dogs; Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is the major accrediting organization for hearing and service dogs.
If you or a loved one might benefit from partnering with an assistance dog, find a provider through one of these agencies. They both provide a search feature on their websites for locating your closest accredited trainers.