Helping Paws

Person in wheelchair and service dog

By: Dennis Meade

Humans have been relying on dogs for years and they’ve become highly visible in law enforcement or military roles, increasing their familiarity to the public. However, canines as individual service animals and those working in other industries are lesser known. Service and support animals are vital to the health and well-being of many. With the increased visibility through the media and social media, it’s becoming clear to the wider public that service animals perform a vital role in the health and well-being of people.

Service and support dogs can be identified by their vest or harness which mark them as working. Service animals are allowed access to areas with their humans that would normally not allow animals, as they help their owners by assisting or protecting them. They are always on the clock ensuring their human is safe and healthy. What are some of the roles these canines fill?

Service Animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 qualified dogs as service animals to help people with specific tasks. Dogs can be trained as guides for those who are visually impaired, to notify people who are hearing impaired of sounds, pick up items and hand them to someone who cannot pick them up, and use their keen sense of smell to check for allergens in food and other substances. They’re also trained to smell changes in human chemistry to notify their human of an impending seizure, diabetic change or other medical emergency.Miniature horse and text next to it

Dogs have long been best friends and companions who you can turn to for help when you need comfort and understanding. Those dogs may be classified as Emotional Support Animals (ESA). ESAs are not covered by the ADA, but some states have laws specific to ESAs, and often, it is up to the individual place of business to determine their rules for ESAs. The only Federal law protecting ESAs is the Fair Housing Act, which says housing may not discriminate against someone who requires an animal that provides emotional support. ESAs may even be encouraged by medical professionals for patients dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety or other similar health concerns.

Search and Rescue

Skilled dogs trained in search and rescue help during mass casualty events and natural disasters by looking for those trapped in debris or searching for missing persons. They’re usually affiliated with emergency agencies or specific rescue groups and can work as a team to search larger areas. Their certification as a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog provides the canine and handler the skills to safely and quickly search for people and help rescue them.

Several heroic canines have been honored for their work looking for survivors in mass casualty events and disasters such as earthquakes, building collapses, bombings, mudslides and more. One of the most famous rescue dogs is Barry, a Saint Bernard, who worked at a refuge for pilgrims crossing the Swiss Alps on their way to Rome. Barry is credited with saving at least 40 lives between 1800 and 1814. In addition to Barry, there is Mancs, a German Shepherd from Hungary who was able to locate and help rescue a three-year-old girl who was trapped for 82 hours after an earthquake struck Hungary in 1999. And, of course, there’s Balto, a Siberian Husky (and subject of an animated film), who was the lead dog on a sled team that brought medicine back to Nome, Alaska, during severe weather to save the town’s children. Since then, numerous dogs have been honored for their bravery in finding survivors during catastrophic events.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs work in many places and help a diverse range of people. From airports to schools, nursing homes, medical treatment facilities, emergency, and more, these dogs provide smiles and stress relief during visits. Therapy dogs often work in conjunction with the places they visit to provide a specific type of therapy, such as touch therapy in assisted living facilities, comfort through gentle touches at hospitals, and stress relief through hugs and gentle play at schools.

No certifications are required for therapy dogs, but most have basic obedience training and are well-behaved around many different people. Therapy dogs bring joy and can help take people’s minds off their stress, pain or trauma. Canines help alleviate worry and stress and often provide comfort during depression and grief. They can also help lower blood pressure and stress levels while bringing a warm hug and encouraging nudge or smile.

Canine Victim’s Advocates

Victim advocates are there to help those who need support working through a trauma. Advocates may work in law enforcement agencies, fire departments, courts, hospitals, schools and many other locations where their presence helps lessen the trauma the victim has experienced. Especially in cases involving children, canine advocates play a significant role in helping them feel supported and safe as they share their stories.

Dogs working with victim advocates provide strength and safety for those navigating a scary and unknown situation. Therapy dogs are usually the ones working within the realm of victim advocacy, as they have the calm and steady demeanor needed to help those dealing with trauma. Therapy dogs have the training to understand the behavior of the human and to know what that person needs. These canines know when to nudge someone’s hand, lean into their leg, offer a furry dog head to rub, move closer to sit by them or to lean in for a comforting hug.

Comfort Canines

Therapy dogs acting as a form of comfort do not only work with victim advocates. Many emergency communications centers, medical centers, schools and many other locations allow and encourage therapy dog visits. Taking a break during a stress-filled day to pet a dog, rub their ears, or hug them can go a long way in relieving stress for those whose days are filled with helping others and prioritizing traumas.

Therapy dogs also find themselves in other general office settings, like human resources during training or testing events or university campuses during finals week. Therapy dogs are also routinely scheduled in many other circumstances and situations where people need a bit of comfort or a few quiet minutes to decompress. Many jobs, especially high-stress ones like 9-1-1 operators and emergency dispatchers, find significant benefits in regularly scheduled therapy dog visits during each shift.

Law Enforcement and Military Dogs

Dogs have worked with humans in combat and law enforcement as far back as 600 B.C. Dive deeper into the history of these furry heroes by reading, Paws That Protect and Serve.

Helpful and Intuitive Canines

Early records of guide dogs working with visually impaired people were found on European wood carvings and Chinese scrolls as far back as 1 AD. With success after World War I and beyond, service dogs were used to help those with disabilities, and the ADA made it easier for those who require a service animal to access public places.

With the addition of ESAs becoming more commonplace, those who need an emotional support companion have that option. As this level of support for those who need it becomes more prevalent and acceptable, the need for ESAs and service animals will increase. With the help of social media clips showing what ESAs and service animals are trained to do, more people will continue to accept the animals in these roles. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re cute and fluffy!

Want More?

For some fun K9 videos, check out our interviews with three Snohomish County K9 officers here. Meet Doc, Knox and Kodi!

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