by Jennie Dapice, MA, OTR/L

Looking through the pages of inMotion, it's clear that marketing aimed at people with limb loss and limb differences highlights the ability to return to activities, gain independence, and increase the ability to participate in exciting and challenging adventures. These advertisers are generally selling prosthetics and other durable medical equipment.

It is less advertised, but service animals are trained to help people with disabilities achieve similar goals. Service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as any animal “trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”

Service dog

What kinds of animals make good service animals?

From monkeys to miniature horses, service animals of all types fulfill multiple roles, depending on the person with whom they are matched. Dogs are the most common type, probably because of their domestication, status as pets, and familiarity.

Still, service dogs aren't that common. Of approximately 56 million Americans living with disabilities (nearly 2 million of whom have limb loss), only about 15,000 people have service dogs.

Guide dogs help people with visual impairment navigate their environment safely. Hearing dogs alert their deaf or hearing-impaired humans to sounds such as doorbells, telephones, smoke alarms or crying children. Seizure alert dogs detect physiological changes and alert their human partners to an oncoming seizure. Psychological service dogs calm or ground their human partners during episodes of illness.

So what can service dogs do for people with limb loss?

Service dogs for people with limb loss or limb differences are trained to retrieve dropped items, turn light switches on and off, aid with dressing, and more. They can also increase mobility independence by opening doors, pulling a wheelchair or by acting as a balance or brace for transfers. These are all ways dogs can assist people with disabilities in a physical capacity, but the emotional benefits of service dogs are also tremendous. People with service dogs often remark upon the emotional impact the dog has had on their lives. Dogs, unlike traditional adaptive equipment, are extremely sociable animals who love people and work. Dogs provide companionship and unconditional love, and can reduce loneliness.

For someone with bilateral hand amputations, such as Mike Penketh of Vacaville, California, a service dog can change a life. Mike lost both of his hands in a 1993 car racing accident at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In 2000, a friend of his encouraged him to explore the benefits of service dogs. He met Magy in 2000, and both lives were changed forever. Magy is an 8-year-old female golden retriever trained by Canine Companions for Independence. Since Mike is an independent guy who sustained his injury in 1993, he believed there weren't many tasks that he hadn't already figured out how to do by the time Magy came into his life. Now, Mike says, “Anybody who is disabled who does not explore service dogs is really doing themselves an injustice, because they can add so much to your life.” According to Mike, the assistance that Magy provides for him involves holding items, picking up dropped items, and other physical tasks. Mike can't use pockets. As a result, when traveling, Magy is very helpful in holding his keys and other items that he would normally drop or be unable to hold.

Mike and Magy volunteer for A Touch of Understanding, a nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of people with disabilities. Through this organization, Mike and Magy have helped introduce over 20,000 children to what service dogs can do for people with disabilities.

Service dogs for servicemen.

Service dog providers have recently begun programs to match veterans returning with limb loss and service dogs. One such program is Canines for Combat Veterans, a program of Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. Through this program, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are provided with trained service dogs.

How do service training programs work?

Service dogs are trained in many different settings. Some dogs are bred specifically from chosen breeds for temperament and health, while other dogs are adopted from shelters to be trained for service work. Generally, dogs require between eight and 18 months of training to learn appropriate commands. Some programs have volunteer puppy raisers who raise dogs in their homes until they are ready for more intensive training. The dropout rates of service dog training programs vary, but usually between 40 percent and 60 percent of dogs complete the training and are matched as service dogs. Many people believe the individual dog chooses whether they enjoy working or not. Service dogs work alongside the person with whom they are matched. When they're not working, these animals are allowed to just be dogs, chasing a ball in the yard or getting a belly rub.

As with all assistive technology, service dogs aren't for everyone. Before applying for a service dog, consider your lifestyle and whether you and your family will be able to house, fund and care for a service dog. The dog is often provided free or for a reasonable price to the recipient. However, that person is responsible for all costs associated with the dog's care once the dog is home.

Assistance Dog International (ADI) is the only organization that sets out training and other general standards for service dog training organizations. There are currently 70 ADI-certified organizations. No laws exist requiring standards for service dog trainers or service dog teams.

Although the ADA protects the legal rights of people with disabilities to bring their service dogs into public places, they often face challenges to their access. Despite these challenges, service dogs are allowed access with their human partner to all businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, taxis and shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks and zoos.

Although you may not see a service dog organization advertising on the pages of inMotion, these organizations exist. They, and the service dog you may one day be matched with, could open a world of possibilities.

Related Resources

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Business Brief: Service Animals
www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/svcanimb.htm

Assistance Dogs International, Inc.
www.adionline.org

Canine Companions for Independence
www.caninecompanions.org

Delta Society
www.deltasociety.org

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners
www.iaadp.org

New England Assistance Dog Services (NEADS)
www.neads.org

About the Author

Jennie Dapice, MA, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at Children's Hospital Boston, a volunteer for Canine Companions for Independence, and a Delta Society Pet Partner with her therapy dog, Curtiss.

Last updated: 02/05/2009
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