Today I’m talking about animals as trained helpers and assistants. I’ve already talked about why can be good for your mental health here, but now I’m covering more specific ways animals can be helpful to those who have barriers to overcome in participating in society or living independently. The range of ways animals can help are as varied as the animals themselves. I’ll quickly cover the main categories these helper animals fall into. Thanks to this site for their helpful information on this subject.
Guide dogs – Dogs who (usually) help the visually impaired, by identifying and avoiding potential obstacles as their owner moves around both the home and wider society. These dogs are trained to a high standard, and can often even navigate busy streets and shopping centres for their owner.
Hearing dogs – Dogs who alert their hearing impaired owner to events happening around them, such as a siren, a ringing phone or doorbell. Dogs are trained to then physically touch their owner in different ways to let them know the type of sound happening, often within seconds of the event happening.
Service dogs – This name is given to dogs that assist people with a physical disability, or a disability that doesn’t clearly fall under the visually impaired or hearing impaired category. As a result, this type of dog is the most common. They can pull wheelchairs, retrieved dropped objects, close and open doors and turn lights on and off. Skilled companion dogs are very similar, except that they worked under the supervision of a facilitator who is not their owner. This is usually a family member or caregiver.
Seizure response dogs – Some dogs can predict a seizure, but this is not the function of most seizure response dogs. These dogs can activate life-saving alert systems to summon medical help. The can also roll a person into a safe position or retrieve medication needed to halt a seizure.
Emotional Support/Therapy Animals – often, these animals aren’t dogs. They can be a cat, rabbit, horse etc. The main role of these animals is to assist people with mental health issues by providing a stable, comforting presence. A therapist may prescribe a therapy animal to help someone deal with panic attacks, PTSD, depression or a range of other issues.
Facility animals – are a type of therapy animal. Supervised by a facilitator, these animals (usually dogs or cats) work in healthcare or educational settings, to provide companionship, emotional connection and sometimes assistance during physical therapy sessions. These animals can be a coping mechanism for people facing serious medical challenges.
I also want to mention the use of animals in autism therapy, because I read some really interesting things about it here. Horses have been used to help non-verbal children contact to another living creature and begin communicating. The rhythm and balance needed to ride the horse can also help increase balance, which is a common issue for kids with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder). Dogs are also used with children with autism, as service dogs, by helping keep the child safe and alerting the parents of potential danger. Cats can also play this role, though this is less common.
The innovation used by people in training these animals impresses me. The dedication and emotional intelligence of these animals amazes me. As I talked about in this post, I think that including animals in more spheres of society will only make society richer and more empathetic, not only towards animals but also towards each other.
The doors, literal and figurative, that these animals can open from people who otherwise might be excluded from society, or have to live without independence and autonomy, is phenomenal. Can you imagine the freedom it must give a someone who is blind to know that they can get on a bus and do their grocery shopping independently like anyone else? Or the reassurance it gives a parent of a child with autism to know that they can leave their child playing in the next room, because their service dog will alert them if the child is in danger or needs help?
Just as I hope we will see more and more animals out and about in society just for the fun of it, I also hope it will become more and more normal to see students at university with their guide dogs, people in the workplace with their service animal and children at school with a therapy pet. I hope we can become more and more open to removing the barriers – whatever they are – to including people in all parts of society. I’m excited to see how animals can help us do that.
You can donate to Assistance Dogs Australia here or Guide Dogs Australia here. If you’ve heard other stories of animals helping people, please let me know – I’d be interested to hear about it.