Service Dog

Anyone who shares life with a pet knows how much comfort and emotional support they provide. But some animals, like service dogs, kick things up several notches in the kind of assistance they provide to their owner. In honor of Labor Day, we’re giving a shout-out to working animals –including feral cats that provide green rodent control–who do so much to help humanity.

Most people probably think of a guide dog for visually impaired or blind people when they think of a service dog. These dogs tend to be on the larger side of medium-sized breeds since they need to be able to press against their human to nudge them in a direction or prevent them from walking into something. German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Labradoodles are commonly used as guide dogs. But service dogs can be any size or breed and can be trained to perform a variety of tasks to help people with other kinds of disabilities. Here are some examples:

Hearing Dogs. These dogs are trained to alert their deaf or hard-of-hearing owners to important household sounds such as a smoke alarm, doorbell, alarm clock or crying baby by making physical contact and directing their person to the source of the sound. In public, they look toward sounds to direct their owner’s attention.

Mobility Assistance Dogs. Mobility service dogs can do things like flip switches, push buttons, open automatic doors and retrieve items that have slipped out of the reach of their impaired owner, even call 911.

Diabetic Alert Dogs. Thanks to dogs’ superior sense of smell, diabetic alert dogs can detect chemical changes in their human’s blood sugar. These dogs are trained to let diabetic owners know if their blood sugar is getting too high or too low, and let them know if it’s time for some insulin.

Psychiatric Service Dogs. These dogs assist people with mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety and bipolar disorder. For example, for someone with PTSD, they can do room searches and help them feel safe in crowded public spaces. They can remind their humans to take their medication and to exercise, among other things.

Only dogs and, more recently, miniature horses are recognized as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals are defined as specially trained to do specific tasks for people with disabilities. They can accompany people with disabilities in all public spaces, including restaurants or other places that prepare or serve food, even if local or state health codes prohibit animals on the premises. (Certain conditions apply to miniature horses.)

Animals also can be deemed emotional support animals (ESAs). Unlike service animals, they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks and are limited to specific public places. They can be any kind of animal. ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act, which allows people with medical documentation to have an animal in their home regardless of whether the building or landlord has a “no pets” policy. A letter from a mental health professional attesting that the pet owner has a mental health condition that the pet helps them deal with is needed.

On the other side of the spectrum are feral cats whose job is rodent control. These untamed cats are not socialized to humans and live in groups called colonies. Feral cats are humanely managed through trap-neuter-return programs, in which they are vaccinated, fixed and returned to their outdoor home. Sometimes ferals can’t be safely returned to their original location, as when an abandoned building they live in is being demolished, for example. Such cats can be relocated to a barn, a private backyard or a business where they keep rats at bay. In return, the property or business owner feeds and cares for the cats. Cats at Work, a program of Chicago’s Tree House Humane Society, is a great local example.

We celebrate these and all other kinds of working animals!

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