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How can a service dog help me on my brain rehabilitation journey? Celebrating National Dog Day!

Here on BrainWire, you’ve heard us rave about the many ways that pets shower our lives with joy and comfort. From wagging their tails when they see us to cuddling us when we’re feeling down, dogs have a unique ability to lift spirits and make each day brighter! As we celebrate National Dog Day this year, we want to spotlight a special category of animals that takes compassion and support to another level: service dogs!

These remarkable companions are not just adorable, furry friends. They’re highly trained superheroes, lending a helping paw to individuals living with a wide range of disabilities, including those recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or living with dementia. Read on to learn more about the transformative support that service dogs can bring to people on a brain rehabilitation journey.

What is a service dog?

Service animals are highly trained dogs who perform specific tasks to support someone living with a disability with daily living activities! The person whom a service dog is trained to help is often called its handler. 

To qualify as a service animal, these furry companions must meet specific criteria:

  • They must be dogs.
  • They must be trained to perform specific tasks directly related to their handler’s disability.
  • They should have a calm and well-behaved demeanor in all environments
  • They should be able to maintain proper hygiene as they accompany their handler in different settings

Contrary to popular belief, there are no specific breed or size requirements for service dogs. Breeds such as labrador retrievers, poodles, and golden retrievers are commonly selected for service dog training due to their size and temperament. However, dogs big and small alike, of all breeds, can be trained to become wonderful service animals!

Where can I bring my service dog in the U.S.? 

As the U.S. Justice Department clearly states: “Businesses and non-profits that are open to the public as well as state/local governments must allow service animals to go most places where the public can go. This is true even if they have a “no pets” policy.”

In other words, your service dog can accompany you practically anywhere in public! This includes hospitals, restaurants, shops, schools, and hotels. Service dogs also have special protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) when it comes to housing and travel!

You do not have to pay any additional fees that might apply to pets, and you do not have to stay in a pets-only section of any establishment. Think of your service dog as an extension of you! 

So…Can I just show up to places with my service dog? 

In most cases, yep! In fact, according to the Justice Department, when it is not clear whether a dog is a service animal, staff members are allowed to ask you two things—and two things only!

  1. Is that dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

This means that you are not legally required to disclose any personal medical information, produce a letter from a healthcare profession, or have your service dog perform a task in front of anyone! And, despite widespread misconceptions, service dogs are not required to wear any special harness or have an I.D. card (though they may).

If you’re traveling on an airline, there are some forms you might need to fill out in advance, which can be found on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website here.

Tasks service dogs can be trained to perform to help you on your brain rehabilitation journey: 

  1. Mobility Assistance: For people with mobility challenges after a stroke or TBI, service animals can support balance and enhance stability. They can be trained to stand steady, support their handler while walking, and even open and close doors!
  2. Retrieve Items: Service animals can be trained to fetch medications, water, or other essential items for people who may have limited mobility or difficulty reaching certain objects. They can even retrieve items from the floor to minimize the risk of falls!
  3. Vision Support: Seeing-eye dogs can provide assistance on a wide array of tasks to people who have visual impairments. For example, they can help their handler avoid obstacles, safely navigate various environments and cross streets, and find seating, exits, and elevators.
  4. Navigation Help and Behavioral Redirection: For those with memory issues, service animals can be trained to help their handlers with navigation to and from specific locations. Service dogs can also be trained to prevent their handlers from leaving home without company.
  5. Seizure Response and Alert: Seizure alert dogs receive training about cues in their handler’s behavior and body chemistry that may signal an upcoming seizure. When a seizure is about to happen, these intuitive dogs exhibit specific behaviors to alert their handlers or those around them, such as by nudging, pawing, or vocalizing. Seizure response dogs, meanwhile, can help respond to seizures when they occur by barking, finding someone to help, or activating an alert system.
  6. Psychiatric Support: Service animals can perform tasks to provide emotional stability, which can help individuals coping with the emotional challenges of brain rehabilitation. For individuals with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, service dogs may be trained in tasks such as deep pressure therapy (DPT) to help alleviate emotional distress. Service animals can also be trained to interrupt self-harming behaviors.

Just as a friendly reminder: emotional support animals (ESAs) are different from psychiatric service dogs! ESAs provide invaluable emotional support to their owners but have not been specifically trained to do so, whereas service animals perform specific tasks to relieve that anguish!

The above list of tasks is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the types of tasks that service animals might perform for someone recovering from a stroke, brain injury, or living with another neurological condition.

To dogs everywhere: we celebrate and thank you! 

As dog lovers around the world know, dogs are an immensely joyful addition to life. Many people feel that the love their dog gives them is unconditional and irreplaceable. On National Dog Day, we celebrate this special human-canine bond all the more!

We also want to give an extra big shoutout to all the service dogs who go the extra mile for their handlers. Service dogs’s steadfast dedication, loyalty, and hard work over many years is a tremendous gift that deserves the highest applause, today and every other day.

Whether you have a service dog, loving pet, or emotional support animal, we’d love to hear more about how your dog has changed your life for the better! In honor of this year’s National Dog Day, share a story about your dog in the comments below!

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  1. Jennifer M Olmsted

    We recently got a puppy. How can I have him trained to be a service dog?


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