If periodic exposure to an animal via animal-assisted activities, therapy, or education is healthful for someone with special needs, constant exposure may offer even greater benefits. Assistance or service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks in partnership with people. In addition to the familiar guide dogs for visual disabilities and service dogs for physical disabilities, dogs are able to assist people with many other disabilities, such as epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, or autism. An emerging role of service dogs is as psychiatric service dogs, assisting persons with mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, or anxiety. Others assist in law enforcement, agricultural or bomb sniffing, search and rescue, or war tasks. Dogs range from being purpose-bred with extensive training, to being shelter-sourced with minimal formalized training. Significant investments of money and time are required for the specialized training and development of working partnerships with these dogs. As they forge working partnerships with their dogs, the handlers inevitably become emotionally bonded. Details of these working relationships vary. Assistance dogs, after often having several handlers in their early lives, typically spend all their waking hours with a single handler. Some working dogs may be kenneled in a facility when not working, whereas many police dogs live with the families of their handlers.
Although no legal or regulatory process certifies assistance dogs, Assistance Dogs International is one organization engaged in developing international standards. Curricula for health professionals are being offered by the Assistance Dog Institute at the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, California, leading to a Master of Science in Assistance Dog Education or Human-Canine Life Sciences.
While every situation involving working dogs is somewhat unique, the dogs are extremely precious and valuable to the handlers. When a medical crisis arises with such a dog, the veterinarian will often be the closest professional at hand and may need to provide support to the handler as well as the animal. Treatments that adversely affect performance, especially for an extended period of time, disrupt functioning. If the client has a disability, special accommodation may be required for communicating with and providing instructions to the client. Attentive listening and respect, while essential for all clients, assumes particular importance in these relationships.
Last full review/revision March 2012 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD