Service and therapy animals can be very beneficial for people with various disabilities, including autism, epilepsy, physical disabilities, blindness, and others. These animals are trained based on the specific needs of an individual and are able to perform tasks such as alerting a diabetic owner to a drop in blood sugar, assisting with daily tasks for a physically disabled person, or providing emotional support for someone with autism or PTSD.
Studies have shown that exposure to animals improves morale and communication, boosts self-esteem, calms anxiety, and even reduces blood pressure and heart rate. The benefits of a trained service animal or therapy animal can be enormous for someone with a disability. Service animals can also be used to augment traditional physical, occupational, and speech therapies and to provide more support.
Interacting with a dog, cat, or other service animal or therapy pet can improve quality of life and can be especially beneficial for those with autism as the level of intimacy can help teach them the meaning of friendship and how to bond.
The difference between service animals and therapy pets
There are several distinctions between service animals and therapy pets. Service animals are carefully trained to do things that their disabled owner is not able to do because of his or their disability. These are working animals and are not generally considered pets. Therapy pets, as well as emotional support animals, on the other hand, provide companionship and can help with depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism, and communication difficulties. Service animals are almost always dogs, while therapy and emotional support animals can be any type of pet.
Types of service animals
Different types of service animals include guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility dogs, medical detection dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and autism dogs. Depending on the disability of their handlers, service dogs are trained to perform a variety of tasks such as retrieving dropped items, alerting to a sound, pressing an automatic door button, or reminding their owner to take medications.
Some examples of the types of service dogs include:
- Guide Dog: used to guide people who have severe visual impairments or are legally blind.
- Hearing Dog: alerts a deaf or hearing-impaired person when a sound occurs, such as an alarm clock ringing or a knock on the door.
- Physical Disability Service Dog: assists people with a physical disability by performing tasks that their partner cannot do or has trouble doing, such as turning on and off light switches or retrieving dropped items.
- Psychiatric Service Dog: assists individuals with psychiatric disabilities, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and to help mitigate the effects.
- Sensory signal dog or social signal dog: helps an adult or child with autism.
- Seizure Response Dog: assists a person with a seizure disorder either by predicting a seizure and warning the person in advance or standing guard over the person during a seizure – or the dog may go for help.
Emotional support and therapy animals
Emotional support animals provide comfort and support for an individual suffering from various conditions, particularly anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, panic attacks, phobias, and other psychological and emotional conditions. A therapy pet is not required to perform specific tasks, but are often well-behaved pets that are given basic obedience training and then tested for both obedience and temperament.
Types of emotional support and therapy animals include:
- Therapeutic Visitation Animal: household pet whose owners take time to visit hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation facilities to lift their spirits and help motivate them in their therapy or treatment.
- Animal Assisted Therapy Animal: assists physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to an individual’s recovery. Animal Assisted Therapy pets typically work in rehabilitation facilities.
- Facility Therapy Animal: primarily works in nursing homes and are often trained to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They live at the facility and are handled by a trained member of the staff.
How to get a service animal or therapy pet
Choosing the right animal and the right organization to go through depends largely on the individual’s preferences and specific needs. The doctors and therapists already working with an individual may be able to suggest a certain place or animal, taking into consideration the person’s disability, allergies, fears, insurance, etc. to help with the decision making process.
Below is a list of organizations that breed or rescue, train, and place service dogs and therapy dogs with people who need them:
- Paws With a Cause – Paws With A Cause breeds and custom-trains Assistance Dogs for people with physical disabilities, hearing loss, seizures and autism.
- Pawsitivity Service Dogs – Pawsitivity Service Dogs is a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as Service Dogs for people with disabilities. The dogs help people with autism, PTSD, epilepsy, and other disabilities.
- 4 Paws for Ability – 4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of people with disabilities and veterans by training and placing quality, task-trained service dogs. This provides increased independence for the individuals and assistance to their families. 4 Paws for Ability also helps with animal rescue and educates the public regarding use of service dogs in public places.
- Autism Service Dogs of America – The mission of Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA) is to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals living with autism, and their families, by providing exceptionally well trained service dogs.
- Assistance Dogs International – Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is a coalition of not for profit assistance dog organizations. The purpose of ADI is to improve the areas of training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs, staff and volunteer education, as well as educating the public about assistance dogs, and advocating for the legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs.
- Blessings Unleashed – The mission of Blessings Unleashed is to enrich the lives of individuals with autism by training and placing highly skilled service dogs. They train select rescue dogs for their future individualized task and educate recipients to utilize and care for their service dog.
- Canine Companions for Independence – Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. Canine Companions is the largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs, and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people.
- Custom Canines Service Dog Academy – Custom Canines Service Dog Academy is a not-for-profit organization of volunteer professionals and individuals who embrace the endeavor of creating and supporting lasting partnerships between highly skilled service dogs and the community of mankind with diverse impairments and disabilities, thus greatly enhancing their quality of life. The dogs of Custom Canines are placed with their human partners at no cost.
- North Star Foundation – The mission of North Star Foundation is to help those who face social, emotional or educational challenges with the help of animal assisted therapy, school visits, and assistance dog placements. They have created over 250 assistance dog partnerships with people all over the world.
- Susquehanna Service Dogs – Susquehanna Service Dogs raises, trains, and places service dogs and hearing dogs, as well as facility dogs, to assist children and adults with disability to become more independent.
- UDS Service Dogs – UDS Service Dogs are trained from pups for over two years by a team of dedicated volunteers and professionals to help people who have a mobility disability, this could include Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, Quadriplegia, Paraplegia, Amputation, Stroke, Spinal Cord Injuries, and Polio live fuller lives.
- Dog Training Center of Chester County – The Dog Training Center of Chester County is located in Exton, PA and and offers training classes for therapy dogs.
Check out our How to Get Services page to learn about more resources available!