August 2nd through the 8th has been designated International Assistance Dog Week–a time to recognize and appreciate the incredible work assistance dogs perform for their owners. These animals are devoted to helping people with both mental and physical impairments.
It take a lot of training and commitment to prepare dogs for their careers as assistance animals, but it’s clearly worth it: according to the AKC, more than 80 million people in the United States have service dogs.
So what exactly is an assistance dog?
It’s easy to use the phrases assistance dog and service dog interchangeably, but doing so isn’t quite accurate. The broad term “assistance dog” refers to all animals within the subcategories of service dog, guide dog, and hearing dog.
Guide dogs work with individuals who are blind or have some type of visual impairment, and hearing dogs–as the name suggests–assist those who have hearing impairments. Service dogs help people with a wide range of disabilities other than deafness or blindness, according to Assistance Dogs International.
Service dogs assist people with an impressive list of conditions, including mobility limitations, balance issues, and autism. They can also be trained to recognize the presence of allergens or the signs of impending medical events, such as hypoglycemia and seizures. Other service dogs help owners who are living with psychiatric conditions, including PTSD, schizophrenia, and OCD.
It’s important to note that emotional support animals are not the same as psychiatric service dogs, and the former are not recognized as assistance dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Emotional support animals provide stress relief, comfort, and joy to people, but they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks that prevent or reduce the impact of a medical or psychiatric event.
Many folks put a vest or other item on their animals so that others will know their status as assistance dogs–not pets. However, the ADA does not require this, so it’s always best to ask the owner before petting a dog you see out and about.
You should be doing that with any pet you come across, but it’s especially important when it’s an assistance animal. Remember, they are focusing and working hard to keep their owners safe.