What are Service Dogs?
Service dogs are highly trained canines that assist individuals with disabilities to perform tasks that a person cannot easily do on their own. These dogs are not considered pets but working animals that provide support and services to people with various physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental health disabilities. Service dogs are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States. These laws ensure that individuals with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by their service dogs in most public places and other areas where pets are typically prohibited.
It’s important to understand that there are a few different types of dogs used for therapeutic purposes and that service dogs are different from emotional support and therapy dogs. Service dogs require specialized training to perform specific tasks to assist their disabled handler in living a more independent life. Emotional support and therapy dogs do not have the same legal protections but are still recognized to provide comfort and companionship without the same level of training as service dogs.
A service dog at a person’s side can provide numerous benefits and give that individual a greater sense of independence, security, and safety, For older adults who have difficulty walking, experience memory loss or dementia, require a wheelchair or mobility support, feel isolated, have limited physical exercise, need medical and/or mental health assistance may qualify for a service dog.
Service Dogs for Seniors can Assist Older Adults in Several Areas
Service dogs provide numerous benefits to older adults such as:
For individuals who struggle with mobility or balance issues, or who rely on a wheelchair or walker to move about, a service dog is trained to assist with walking, standing, or performing daily tasks. This can include opening doors, turning on lights, pushing wheelchairs, retrieving items, and keeping individuals steady on their feet by providing support while walking or standing still. Having this additional assistance reduces the risks of falls and potential injuries, facilitating confidence that an individual can perform tasks safely.
Service dogs need regular exercise and care which can encourage their handlers to stay active and engaged in physical activities and lessen the inclination to establish a more sedentary routine. The benefit of regular activity for older adults improves their health by facilitating circulation, strengthening muscles and bones, improving cognitive function, lowering the risk of falls, and improving overall well-being.
Medical Condition Assistance
Service dogs are trained to do tasks and commands they need to know to assist a specifically assigned individual. They can provide timely alerts (i.e., barking when detecting a blood sugar fluctuation in a person with diabetes or seizures in those with epilepsy), giving their handlers or caregivers the opportunity to take appropriate measures or respond to emergency situations, such as guiding their handlers to safety during a crisis.
For individuals with blindness, a guide dog will go through special training to detect obstacles and dangers that are not visible to their handler. These dogs learn that despite a command to walk forward or go left/right if there is an obstruction, they will stop to alert their handler to the danger.
Mental Health Support
For an older adult with mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, and dementia, service dogs are trained to assist them based on their needs. A service dog can alert depressed individuals to changes in their emotional state so they know to seek additional support. Petting a dog is known to physiologically release the body’s natural endorphins, which can positively impact stress levels, reducing anxiety and reactions related to PTSD, OCD, and other high anxiety individuals.
Individuals who experience occasional mental episodes that don’t impact their daily lives, an emotional support or therapy dog may be a suitable companion to help them through these times.
Social Interaction and Independence
To increase social interaction and independence for an older adult, service dogs often initiate independence that can lead to a higher quality of life and greater self-confidence.
For an older person who struggles with social interaction, service dogs can play an important role in encouraging engagement by providing companionship, a sense of purpose, and reducing barriers to communication. A dog by one’s side can attract curiosity from others creating an opportunity for conversation and interaction. Daily walks can lead to other dog owners or people in the neighborhood leading to friendly chats and social connections.
Taking service dogs to public places can provide an older person with opportunities to meet and interact with others outside of their home environment. Individuals can join organizations with like-minded dog owners and develop shared interest and enthusiasm with others. Overall, a service dog can facilitate and engage their handler in situations that might otherwise be difficult and challenging to do on one’s own.
Safety and Security
Having a service dog at one’s side can provide a sense of safety and security to their handlers, especially for individuals with conditions that make them vulnerable to accidents or harm. Service dogs can provide a sense of security for an older person when out in public or at home.
In situations where a person with conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia might wander or get lost, service dogs can be invaluable in locating them, aiding in a quick and safe recovery. For circumstances of disasters or emergencies, service dogs can aid their handlers in navigating through hazardous environments, assisting in their safety during evacuation or relocation.
How Does an Older Adult Qualify for a Service Dog?
The qualifications to get a service dog for seniors typically follow the same process as for any individual with a disability.
The process generally involves the following steps:
- The older adult must have a disability or medical condition that significantly impacts their daily life and can be assisted by a service dog specifically trained to match their needs.
- The older adult’s healthcare provider can provide documentation supporting the need for a service dog.
- Based on the individual’s needs, the specific tasks that the service dog will be trained to perform should be determined and related to the older person’s disability with the aim of improving that person’s independence and quality of life.
- The older adult can reach out to a reputable service dog organization that specializes in training and providing service dogs for individuals with disabilities.
- The service dog organization will typically require the older adult to fill out an application and go through an evaluation process.
Things to Consider
Not every older person will benefit from a service dog. Individuals who are afraid or uninterested in dogs would not be a good fit. However, if a person is naturally drawn to animals for comfort and interaction, a service dog could make a remarkable difference in that person’s life.
If you’re considering bringing a service dog for seniors into your home, carefully consider if you can meet their needs as there may be costs associated with training and care. It is essential to keep the dog up-to-date on veterinary care, provide it with regular exercise, maintain a healthy living environment, and give it a warm, loving home.
Let’s Get Started…
It’s important to note that the process of obtaining a service dog can take time. For more information about service dogs, visit our UDS Service Dog Program. UDS experts will assess your needs, do a consultation, and obtain cost estimates.
Located in Lancaster, PA, UDS services counties surrounding the South-Central PA area. A full map of counties can be found here.