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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Service Dogs and Occupational Therapy

Published November 24, 2014 10:34 AM by Debra Karplus
Service dogs have always intrigued me.  Our old pooch Harold was smart and, like many service dogs, was part shepherd and Labrador retriever, but Harold was somewhat manic and more interested in chasing Frisbees and terrorizing the postman; He seemingly had little interest in helping someone with a disability, though he was protective of our children when they were young.  Perhaps Harold could have become a service dog, had he been trained as a puppy.

Training is different for a service dog than for a family pet.

I always thought service dogs were only seeing-eye dogs, but I've discovered they do much more.   Service dogs are specially trained animals that assist people with both physical and psychological disabilities.   Blind dogs, hearing dogs, seizure-alert dogs, and mobility dogs are just a few of the services that these working animals provide.  They're individually trained while they are puppies, with advanced training as they become older.  Their training is disability specific, such as hearing-impairment.

Services dogs are not therapy dogs.

Because service dogs are considered to be working dogs and are not pets, we must remind people that they be treated differently; you don't want to pet, talk to, make noises, or feed a working dog.  Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs; they are typically pets that are seen helping in therapy settings like hospitals and nursing homes.

Certain qualities are desirable for service dogs.

German Shepherds, Labrador and golden retrievers make good service dogs because of their size, temperament, good health and longevity.  A working dog must be trainable and mustn't have uncontrollable behavior, as Harold did.  It can't be aggressive and must be safe to take into public places.  It must not be easily distracted by noises. Following verbal cues and hand signals is a must for service dogs.  Eight years is generally the working life of a service dog.  After that, they retire and can become someone's lovable pet.

Service dogs can be professionally trained or owner trained.

Programs employing professionals who train service dogs exist around the United States.  These experts are familiar with dog training and with disabilities.  A professionally-trained service dogs is certified when the training is complete, though certification is not a requirement. I was pleased to read that some occupational therapists are getting involved with service dog training.  What a perfect way to use one's OT skills!

The ADA made service dogs more visible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 expanded rights of people with disabilities.  It allowed public access for working animals.  Consequently, don't be surprised if you see a service dog in a public place such as a concert or shopping mall.

People with disabilities each have their own service dogs.

To get a service dog, a person must first establish that they have a disability that would be helped by having a specially-trained dog.  They next must contact an organization that has service dogs.  Learn more at, one of many websites that has access to service dog

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Not all guide dogs for the blind are Seeing-Eye dogs.  "Seeing Eye" is the name of a school which trains dogs to be guide dogs for the blind. There are several such schools, such as The Seeing Eye, Leader Dogs for the Blind, Guide Dogs of America, etc. For a list of guide dog schools, see

Orli Weisser-Pike, Assistant Director, Low Vision Service December 1, 2014 6:05 PM
Memphis TN

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