It has been said that service dogs have been used to assist individuals with special needs since the 1750’s when guide dogs were used to help the visually impaired in a Paris, France hospital. However, the guide dog movement really originated and “caught on” in Germany after WWI after thousands of soldiers were left blinded by mustard gas. The German Ambulance Association had started training hundreds of collies to track down wounded soldiers as well as perform other duties on the front lines. In 1916, the original trainer of those soldier seeking collies was tasked to train German shepherds as guide dogs for visually impaired veterans. By 1930, Gerhard Stalling (originator of the service dog) had trained and produced 4,000 guide dogs from his training facility in Potsdam.
In the last 20 years, using dogs as working companions has expanded to perform specific tasks for a variety of individuals with disabilities. Whether the reason for a service dog is a physical or mental ailment, these animals are specially trained to assist their partners with a broad array of services. Service dogs allow for people to lead more independent lives by performing tasks for someone who requires additional assistance.
There are a variety of differently trained service dogs, all trained for a specific ailment or disability. Guide dogs help visually impaired individuals navigate their environments and “get around” while hearing dogs help alert those hard of hearing or deaf to important sounds. Medical alert dogs are highly trained to signal their masters and others around them of the onset of medical issues such as low blood sugar or a seizure. Mobility dogs assist those in wheelchairs and walkers as well as those with balance problems. There are even psychiatric dogs now that are specially trained to assist those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD and other conditions. They are highly trained to perform specific services for their master’s condition such as interrupting repetitive behaviors and even reminding them to take medication.
When it comes to mobility assistance dogs, the most common breeds used are Great Danes, St. Bernard’s and Bernese Mountain dogs. These breeds used because of their size and strength, however Labrador retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German shepherds are still common mobility assistance dogs as well as service dogs for other disabilities.
Service dogs were originally intended to assist veterans and while civilians are more than eligible for a service dog, there are a variety of organizations, such as NEADS.org that offer special veteran programs with grants and opportunities for veterans to receive an expertly trained and certified service dog at no cost to them.
Specially trained veteran service dogs are able to assist veterans with mobility and physical disabilities as well as those who suffer from PTSD as well as hearing loss. For those with mobility limitations, their service dog can turn light switches on and off, be used as a brace to help their master during transfer, pushbuttons such as elevators and automatic doors, even retrieve phones in case of an emergency. Service dogs trained for hearing loss candidates can alert their owner to sounds around the home or in public such alarm clocks, smoke detectors, their name being called and their phone ringing. Trauma assistance dogs are trained through highly custom programs for veterans with diagnosed service-related post-traumatic stress disorder. These dogs can help their masters turn light switches on and off, cope with flashbacks, provide tactical support, boundary assistance, anxiety triggers and even assist them in overcoming the fear of certain public places. These incredible and expertly trained animals allow veterans to reintegrate with civilian life while managing their PTSD and helping to manage triggers.
Training programs, breeds and the use of service dogs has changed quite a bit since the 1920s but one thing has remained; the undying loyalty of these dogs to serve their masters and guide them to a more independent and fulfilled life.
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