Woman Hugging Her Dog

More Than Pets: The Important Roles of Service and Support Animals

Surely, you’ve noticed the change in mood that comes from petting your beloved dog or cat. Interacting with animals has been shown to increase a person’s oxytocin levels which can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and decrease depression.

The bonding that can happen between humans and animals is akin to love. We empower them to help us heal emotionally and physically.

The dogs’ ability to be trained and accept commands has made them vital assistants for millennia for people with limited vision. Carvings and scrolls depicting guide dogs assisting the blind go back as far as A.D. 1. Their use increased around World War I as soldiers were blinded by mustard gas.

The evolution of animals as emotional support companions did not evolve until the late 1980s. They are most often dogs and cats, but recent stories of emotional support pigs, peacocks, primates, penguins, and aardvarks have prompted businesses — particularly airlines and rail companies — to limit what qualifies.

Service versus emotional support

Dogs and miniature horses are the only federally recognized service animals according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. They must be allowed to accompany their humans wherever the public has a right to go.

To be a service animal, the dog or miniature horse must be trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples include:

  • Guiding the blind,
  • Alerting the deaf,
  • Pulling wheelchairs,
  • Protecting people who have seizures,
  • Reminding people with mental health issues to take their medicine, or
  • Calming people with post-traumatic stress disorder

Some service dogs have been trained to help people with diabetes monitor their blood-sugar levels.

Emotional support animals don’t perform specific tasks. They are prescribed by mental health professionals to patients diagnosed with emotional or psychological disorders, like depression, bipolar disorder, or panic attacks.

Emotional support animals only have to “be there” for their humans. Sometimes they work in hospitals or schools and not just with one person. They are not protected by the ADA and are not a subcategory of service animals.

Person in a Wheelchair with Service Dog

Physical Support

Service dogs perform multiple tasks for people who have physical disabilities. The tasks often depend on the type of disability and the needs of the person.

  • For people in wheelchairs — Dogs can be trained to open doors, pick up objects, retrieve items or turn lights on and off. They may load or unload laundry, press buttons on elevators, or on wheelchair-access doors. They can stabilize someone getting into bed or going to the bathroom.
  • For people with epilepsy — They can warn someone of a coming seizure, lie with the person having the seizure, then get help depending on the situation.
  • For people with fatigue issues — Dogs can help people retain their balance, brace someone to prevent a fall, or carry items that might fatigue the person.

Emotional Support

Emotional support animals are not service animals, but service animals can be emotional support animals. People who rely on service dogs need help with physical tasks. But service dogs also provide several emotional benefits for their people.

  • Companionship — Their presence can help ease feelings of loneliness. They also help to bear the burden of the illness or disability.
  • Independence — Service dogs can do things that would normally require another person. Sharing those tasks with a dog helps build that sense of independence.
  • Confidence — The service dog becomes a companion that helps their people in a variety of social situations and helps counter the tendence to become isolated.
  • Motivation — Instead of becoming tired or discouraged by daily tasks, the service dog’s assistance helps to motivate the person to get on with daily activities.
  • Self-improvement — Helping people do things that might not have been possible before, can lead a person to reach for new goals.
Man in Wheelchair with His Pet

Bring Your Service Animal

AltaMed understands the important role service dogs play in people’s lives. Service dogs are welcome to attend appointments and visit facilities with the people they serve. Our physicians may be able to help with disability-related support animal services. Contact AltaMed at (888) 499-9303 for more information.

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More Than Pets: The Important Roles of Service and Support Animals