When disability or illness makes it difficult to open a door, pick up keys or call for help, a service dog might ease these frustrations of daily living.
The December issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter covers the many different ways that service dogs help people manage their disabilities. The modern era of service dogs began after World War I, when dogs were trained to guide blind war veterans. Since then, service dogs have been trained in many specialties, including:
Skilled assistance dogs -- These dogs are trained to help those who are physically disabled. They can open doors, pull wheelchairs, turn on lights, retrieve the telephone or summon help.
Hearing dogs -- These dogs alert their handlers to alarm clocks, doorbells, smoke alarms, approaching vehicles or someone calling the handler's name.
Diabetes response dogs -- These dogs carry objects such as juice bottles and can retrieve a phone or sniff the handler's breath for low blood sugar.
Alzheimer's helper dogs -- These dogs are trained to stay with a person who has Alzheimer's -- or fetch help -- if the person starts to wander or gets into an unsafe situation.
Parkinson's disease helper dogs -- These dogs can assist with balance.
Psychiatric service dogs -- These dogs help people who are disabled by severe mental illness by calming anxieties, prodding their handler to take medications and interrupting harmful compulsions.
Many breeds can be trained as service dogs, but Labrador or Golden retrievers are most commonly used. Their specialized training takes six months to a year. In addition, a week or two of training with a new handler is necessary while learning to work together.
While service dogs can increase safety and independence for people with disabilities, they aren't the right solution for everyone. Even a well-trained dog can misbehave or be annoying. Dogs need exercise, attention, grooming and medical care.
Cost also is a factor. Usually the cost to train a dog is $10,000 to $20,000, though some charity groups cover this cost. The Delta Society has a directory of service dog organizations that help train and place service dogs. Many operate as charities, but some charge for their services.
SOURCE Mayo Clinic Health Letter