Animals Who Help Humans

As any animal lover will tell you, there’s no substitute for the unconditional love of a pet. Pets enrich humans’ lives, bringing comfort, fun, playfulness and more to their owners and households. Animals can also contribute significantly to the safety, security and well-being of humans with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. While most of us are aware of the roles guide dogs play for visually impaired individuals, these dogs aren’t the only type of animals that provide valuable service to humans in need.  Here’s what you need to know to decide what might be the right type of pet for you or your loved one.

 Service Animals

These animals — dogs and occasionally, miniature horses — are trained to help people with physical disabilities and serious psychiatric disabilities to perform “major life tasks.” According to the National Service Animal Registry, these tasks include “bathing, dressing, shaving, preparing a meal, and going to the restroom, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, walking, lifting, reaching, bending, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.” After the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, which became law in 2009, the list of major life tasks grew to include “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive (procreation) functions.”

Individuals may have their own animals trained to become service animals, or they may apply for a service animal through the many organizations that train service animals. Though the benefits of obtaining a service animal are great — independence, safety and the ability to function in a variety of situations such as school and work environments more effectively — the cost of obtaining a service animal can be exorbitant. According to Service Dog, “Depending on your location, specialized service dogs can run upwards of $25,000 dollars.” Fortunately, there are organizations that can help with the cost. For more information about financial assistance, visit My Assistance Dog

Therapy Animals

Though often confused with service animals, therapy animals (typically dogs) aren’t trained to help people with life tasks. Rather, they are meant to “provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties,” says NSAR.

There are three categories of therapy animals:

Therapeutic visitation animals are the most common type of therapy animals. Accompanied by their owners, these animals visit places such as medical and rehabilitation facilities raising patients’ spirits and soothing their feelings of anxiety and loneliness. In fact, Disabled World confirms “studies have been pursued that have demonstrated a decrease in both the stress levels and blood pressure of people during visits by therapy dogs.”

Animal Assisted Therapy animals work with physical and occupational therapists as part of their patients’ treatment plans. Frequently, these animals work in rehabilitation facilities and help patients to improve their mental, physical, social and emotional functioning. According to CRC Health Group, animal-assisted therapy goes way beyond just enjoying an animal’s companionship. It “involves specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcomes measures. Therapeutic experiences can include walking, brushing, petting and caring for an animal, as well as processing the experience of trying to achieve a given task.”

Facility therapy animals are usually found in nursing homes where they are trained to watch over patients who are mentally ill or have Alzheimer’s disease. These animals live at the facilities where they work and are cared for and handled by staff members there.

 Emotional Support Animals

These animals provide emotional support just by being near the people who need them. To legally qualify for an ESA, individuals must carry a diagnosis of emotional disability given by a licensed mental health professional and have a prescription (letter) to verify this. ESAs can fly with their owners, and in many cases, landlords and property managers are legally required to waive laws prohibiting pets from living in their properties. For additional information about these regulations visit NSAR.


Dog Days

Photo of William and Asha

On May 23rd, 2016, William Snyder of Baltimore will celebrate his 13th birthday. Turning 13 is a major milestone for most youngsters, but for William, it is especially meaningful. At the tender age of fifteen months, William, the son of Lori and Ron Snyder and big brother to 9-year-old twins,  Megan and Marissa, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After enduring multiple hospitalizations, chemotherapy and surgeries, William’s cancer went into remission. Mercifully, he has remained cancer-free the past eleven years.

Today, William loves baseball, roller coasters, swimming and many other pursuits. But the cancer left William with some significant challenges. He is deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, has learning disabilities, developmental delays and periodically, William experiences seizures.

“Once he was old enough to remember the seizures, William developed a fear of sleeping in his own room,” recalls his father, Ron. So, for about two years, William slept on a mattress in his parent’s bedroom. Though William’s fears were completely understandable, Ron and Lori realized they needed to come up with a better solution.

Photo of William and Asha
William and Asha

After doing some research, they discovered 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization based in Ohio, that trains and places service dogs with children with disabilities. At first, Ron and Lori didn’t think William would be a candidate for a service dog since he wasn’t blind or visually impaired. Then they learned that service dogs are trained to work with children who have all kinds of special needs. There are service dogs for children with seizures, autism, diabetes, mobility disorders, hearing impairment, fetal alcohol and drug syndromes and multiple disabilities. 4 Paws also provides service dogs for disabled veterans.

4 Paws seemed like the answer to their prayers. Yet, the Snyders had lots to do before they could bring William’s service dog home to Baltimore. “It costs $20,000 to fully train a service dog,” Ron explains. “We had to raise $13,000 of the $20,000 to qualify.” So the family got to work. “We collected online donations, hosted a bull roast, had car washes, raffles … It took about a year to raise the money. Then we were on a waiting list for another year.”

In the year prior to bringing Asha, a female Golden Retriever home, the Snyders helped trainers in Ohio to prepare her to work with William.

“When William would have a seizure, we would send the shirt he had been wearing [while having the seizure] to Ohio. The trainers would give it to Asha, so that she would become accustomed to William‘s smell. She was taught to bark to find help and learned to stay by her young master’s side and comfort William while he seized.

Finally, the big day came. On Dec. 12, 2012, the whole Snyder family boarded a plane to Ohio, where they would meet their new family member for the first time. They stayed for two weeks, participating in training and learning how to care for this very special dog.

“It was an instant connection,” Ron recalls. “ Right away, William felt more secure. As soon as we got home, he began sleeping [with Asha] in his own bedroom.”

Asha goes everywhere with William, says his father. “Whether it’s school, field trips, restaurants, vacations – even to Oriole Park for baseball games! She’s very protective and a great way for William to make friends. Kids love her.”

Asha even knows the difference between work-time and playtime, he adds. “When she has her vest on, she’s professional,—it’s like her uniform— and when she takes it off, she knows it’s time to play.”

With Asha beside him, William has the freedom to go about his life independently. “She gives him confidence he didn’t have before. Most of all, she’s his friend.”

Did you know that Enabling Devices offers products for disabled pets, pet owners with disabilities and service and therapy dogs? Visit our website for more information.