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National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts --

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and to commemorate we would like to shine a spotlight on the service animals who aid almost a quarter million people in the US every year. While emotional support animals and assistance animals can come from a variety of species, it is interesting to note that only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, (as of Mar 15, 2011). 

Service dogs are trained to react to a multitude of different situations depending on the needs of their handlers. Guide dogs help those with blindness or visual impairments with their travels. Hearing or signal dogs can alert someone with hearing loss when a certain sound occurs.  Psychiatric service dogs can sense when a psychiatric episode is starting and intervene to lessen its effect. They can also remind their owners to take medicine, perform room checks, turn on lights, interrupt self-mutilation behavior, or guide someone who is feeling disoriented away from danger. Sensory signal dogs are specially trained to assist handlers with autism and can distract away from repetitive movements, or if the owner is showing signs of distress. Service dogs can even be trained to assist those who suffer from seizures – either to stand guard over them or to go find help.

There is an immense amount of work that goes into training a service animal.  While almost any breed of dog can be trained, certain breeds may be better trained for certain purposes. As an example, golden retrievers are a common choice for training as seeing eye dogs while Great Danes may be better suited for helping with mobility.  With the owner’s specific needs in mind, the training period can last over 6 months with repetitive sessions.  On top of the special skills required by the owner, the service dog cannot be aggressive towards other humans or animals, must not search out food or attention from anyone while working, must stay calmly on lead and focused on their handler, must be well mannered in public spaces and must be housetrained per the ADA.

When around a service dog, please realize that the animal is at work.  It can be detrimental to the owner’s training routine to reach out to pet or otherwise distract the service dog.  Before interacting with any service animal always check with the owner first. Remember the dog may very well be the handlers eyes or ears.