When you think of service dogs, you may picture a friendly lab leading a blind person across the street or helping them navigate their neighborhood, an animal that is trained to warn epileptics when a seizure is coming on, or an assistant for those who are confined to a wheelchair, crutches, or braces. Alternately, you might imagine the K-9 police dogs that search for drugs and bombs, find dead bodies, help uncover missing persons in collapsed buildings or under snow, or protect officers by attacking assailants. But what you probably don’t consider, beyond the useful function that these animals perform in the service of humans, is how they change the lives of those they help.
Police and search and rescue dogs certainly act in important ways to aid and protect their human counterparts, often squeezing through small openings in dangerously unstable buildings to help rescuers locate survivors, sniffing out contraband that human devices can’t detect, tracking down suspects or missing persons, or attacking on command so that their handlers will not have to use deadly force. They provide a valuable service to the men and women who serve and protect us in order to save lives. But they are also fun-loving pets who enrich the lives of those they assist. And this fact couldn’t be more pertinent than for individuals with disabilities.
In many cases, these animals don’t just save the lives of humans, they also allow the people they help to live full and happy lives while providing companionship and a measure of security and independence. People who develop disabilities (or have had them for life) can often become depressed and isolated. They may not want to be a burden to their loved ones or they might feel guilty asking for constant assistance. As a result, many develop a pattern of limited social interaction and become glued to their homes, too afraid or ashamed to go out (or maybe just unable to cope). But service animals can make a world of difference.
Large dogs can assist people with physical disabilities by leading them, helping them to balance or stand, clearing a path, or carrying objects to and from their owners (more than slippers…they can be trained to fetch the phone, a pill bottle, or a syringe pack in case of emergency or deliver and return simple items like a credit card to pay for goods and services). But even more than attending to the physical needs of their charges, they offer an emotional fulfillment. They bring companionship to those who might otherwise feel very alone, they allow their owners more independence, and often give them an excuse (and the ability) to leave the house, which gives them a chance to socialize more with peers and neighbors. And they are a great way to meet people since nobody can resist coming by to pet a beautiful and friendly dog (and talk to their human).
In many ways, service animals provide an important lifeline for those they support, embodied mainly in their actions, but sometimes just the comfort their mere presence supplies. They are helpers, companions, and friends. And they can make the difference between life and death in the very real sense that their main function is to aid in survival, but also in the fact that they can emotionally enhance the lives of their owners and give them something to live for.