Dogs are known as man’s best friend, but they can also be man’s best therapist, confidante, and assistant throughout life.
September is National Service Dog Month, celebrating the four-legged friends who help veterans with PTSD, people who are visually impaired, and even some people with physical illnesses like diabetes and epilepsy. The honorary month is also a great reminder to educate the public on why service dogs are important for so many Americans. As the commonality of trained service dogs has increased, so has a lack of understanding about their importance and access to public places.
Unlike pups who are kept as pets, a service dog is specifically trained to assist a person with disabilities. The most common breeds of service dogs are German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers.
Service dogs can help in an array of ways, such as provide balance when standing, help move from a wheelchair to a stable chair, open doors, turn on the lights, or even alert someone before a seizure or cardiac episode.
Service Dog History
Evidence of dogs serving and helping humans can be traced back thousands of years to even the Roman empire, mostly for leading the blind. However, service dogs weren’t legally recognized for many until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
Before the ADA was enacted, “seeing eye dogs” or guide dogs were only officially protected for those with visual disabilities, but those legal protections only date back to the 1920s. Service dogs were originally brought to America thanks to a man named Frank, who was frustrated with his inability to get around easily. He traveled to Switzerland in 1928 to have his dog, Buddy, officially trained, and eventually created The Seeing Eye in 1929 in New Jersey — the country’s first service dog organization.
Today, more than 80 million Americans work or live with service dogs. They can be officially used for disabilities including ALS, vertigo, spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, and Parkinson’s disease.
Service Dogs and Veteran Community Support
In August, President Joe Biden created a pilot program aimed at connecting veterans with service dogs. The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act — also known as the PAWS Act — establishes a five-year program through the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide service dogs to veterans with PTSD as well as training and education.
“We’ve seen such great results with service dogs helping people who suffer from things like PTSD,” New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill said on Twitter. “I know it’s made a huge difference in so many veterans’ lives, and we want to give that access to even more people.”
In a report from the VA, nearly 90,000 veterans died by suicide between 2005 and 2018, and at least 20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD today. Luckily, another VA report shows concrete evidence that veterans paired with trained service dogs have fewer suicidal behaviors and ideations within 18 months of being together.
Similar programs, both training service dogs for about 18 months to help with specific needs as well as helping people with disabilities nationwide find the perfect service dog, are also growing as demand grows.