Shelter Animals Can be Helped by Service Dog Programs

By Christopher Williams

Every single day, thousands upon thousands of dogs find themselves inside an animal shelter. The really sad part is that despite the staggering numbers, these animals represent only a small part of the population because the overwhelming majority of them never make it to the shelter in the first place. To make things even more sobering, dogs that are in a shelter have a remarkably small chance of being adopted and finding a home where they can live out their days with loving owners. In fact, there are studies that exist which show in North Carolina, as many as 95% of the dogs that make it to the shelter never get out of it alive.

Service Dog Training Programs

A program that trains shelter animals to become service dogs accomplishes two things. It provides much needed service dogs for people that suffer from all types of ailments ranging from post traumatic stress disorder, more commonly referred to as PTSD, to those who are blind or hearing impaired. It also provides an opportunity for these animals to get out of the animal shelter and live happy, productive lives doing something that virtually guarantees them a home. Even for the animals that don’t make it through the training, there is a much better chance of being adopted than for those who never receive any of the training at all. Fortunately, there are organizations that peruse animal shelters in an attempt to find dogs that are suitable for training as service dogs.

NEW YORK - NOV 11, 2014: A disabled veteran service dog walks on

The Basics

According to Paws With a Cause, a popular rescue organization, programs designed to create service animals out of shelter animals are one of the most important aspects of rescuing dogs from an otherwise bleak and often short life. For example, a dog rescue in NC may adopt animals to become therapy dogs for those with both psychiatric and physical conditions. The same is true for any animal in virtually any city across the United States. Relating back to the study done by Paws With a Cause, it is easy to see how difficult it is to become a service dog, yet it simultaneously demonstrates the overall importance of the program for both humans and animals.

Understanding the Numbers

According to the study, less than one in four shelter dogs is capable of becoming service dog. In fact, only 25% of shelter dogs are considered adoptable in any capacity, including being adopted as pets. Out of the other 75% that are not considered to be adoptable, there are a variety of reasons. Some are ultimately picked up by their owners and out of those that remain, the two biggest issues that keep them from being adopted are physical issues that are too severe to overcome and the temperament that makes them unsuitable for adopting out.

When it comes to accepting a dog into a service dog training program, it is important to note that only 25% make it through to the next level from the dogs that are initially accepted into the program. The other dogs are not suitable, either for physical reasons or because of temperament issues. Out of the dogs that make it through that initial step, less than 2% make it through further temperament testing and more in-depth physical examinations and out of that number, only one in eight are accepted to the program.

However, not all of the dogs that are accepted to the training program are capable of completing it. In fact, many of them do not fully complete the training but they do receive some level of basic obedience training as a result of their experience. Ultimately, just one dog out of every 500 becomes a full fledged service dog.

Seeing Eye Dog

Types of Service Dogs

Out of the dogs the complete the program, there are many types of service dogs that are capable of performing different duties. Types of service dogs include guide dogs for the blind, as well as those that help the hearing impaired and those that are trained to perform specialized tasks which are designed to make life easier for humans with disabilities.

Dogs are also trained to recognize seizures before they even occur. Other dogs are trained as therapy animals that help those in crisis. Examples include emotional support animals, or ESA animals, and psychiatric service dogs, better known PSD service animals.

Better Pets

For the dogs that do not make it through the training program, they are typically put up for adoption as pets. They have a much better chance of being adopted than a shelter dog that has no training because these dogs have a certain amount of obedience training that makes them well behaved in a variety of family situations. In fact, these dogs are ideal because they are typically able to handle virtually any type of situation, even when there is a lot of activity around the house with children or other animals. For anyone that wants a pet, yet does not have the time or the patience to train a new puppy or to train bad habits out of an older dog, this is one of the most ideal situations that they could ever hope to come across.

Laws That Protect Service Dogs

As far as laws are concerned, service dogs get a lot more breaks than standard pets. This is in large part thanks to federal laws that state that a person can bring a service dog into a public place, whether that is an apartment building that otherwise does not allow pets, a restaurant, store or public event building. This includes therapy animals that are used for psychiatric and emotional reasons as well as guide dogs for the blind or the hearing impaired.

In addition, there are laws throughout the United States that make it illegal to refuse to allow someone to rent a home or an apartment without allowing them to keep their service dog, even if pets are not allowed in the building. This is because these are not pets, they are working dogs that are necessary in order for the human being to live a normal life. Similar laws can be found in places like Australia, Korea and England. In fact, many of these laws exist in countries around the world to in order to ensure that human beings will never be separated from their service dogs.


In the end, the very idea of taking shelter dogs and transforming them into service dogs is an excellent one, to say the least. With that being said, there are still plenty of shelter pets who have virtually no hope of making it even in the first stages of this program. However, this is an ingenious solution to a problem that seems to have no boundaries and it has the capability to help both human beings and countless numbers of animals. These efforts, coupled with a better understanding of the laws that govern service dogs, can help everyone become more friendly toward both the animals and the people that depend on them.

Here’s a brief overview of several common types of Service Dogs:

Severe Allergy Alert Dogs (AADs)

Job: To alert their handler to life-threatening allergens that may be in the area, especially tree nuts, gluten or shellfish

Handler: May or may not have visible signs of disability

Gear: Allergen Alert Dogs typically wear a vest with pockets for emergency information, medical information and/or medication. For their handler’s safety in the event of an emergency and to ensure fast and accurate medical care, AADs should sport a patch that says, “IN EVENT OF EMERGENCY CHECK POCKETS.”

Notes: Often partnered with children, but can be seen partnered with any person with a life-threatening allergy. Most Allergen Alert Dogs carry medical information and emergency protocol in their vest or on a USB key attached to their collar.

Autism Assistance Dogs

Job: To assist in calming and grounding an individual on the autism spectrum via tactile or deep pressure stimulation. May also assist in teaching life skills, maintaining boundaries or finding a “runner.”

Handler: Likely to be a child, but could be older. May or may not show visible signs of disability, and may or may not be verbal.

Gear: Autism Assistance Dogs don’t have distinguishing gear. If a dog’s partner is young and non-verbal, the dog should carry emergency protocol and contact information in his vest.

Notes: Autism Assistance Dogs and Sensory Processing Disorder Dogs fall into the same category and usually perform identical task work.

Brace/Mobility Support Dogs (BMSD)

Job: A Brace/Mobility Support Dog works to provide bracing or counterbalancing to a partner who has balance issues due to a disability. Many BMSDs also retrieve, open/close doors or do other tasks to assist in day-to-day life or in an emergency.

Handler: Will vary in presentation depending on disability. Could be any age.

Gear: Most Brace/Mobility Support Dogs wear a specially-fitted and designed harness to help them safely assist their partner. However, just because a dog isn’t wearing a brace harness doesn’t mean he may not be a brace dog

Notes: Brace/Mobility Support Dogs must be large enough to safely support their human partner. In general, BMSD must be at least 23″ tall and 55 pounds to perform brace/counterbalance work safely, and must be proportionally larger if their human is larger than average.

Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs)

Job: To alert their handler to dangerous or potentially deadly blood sugar highs and lows. Many dogs are trained to call 911 on a special K-9 Alert Phone if their partner cannot be roused.

Handler: May show signs of visible disability, but likely will not. Could be any age from very, very young to a senior citizen.

Gear: Diabetic Alert Dogs typically don’t wear special gear. DADs should carry emergency protocols in their vest if the dog would ever be the first point of contact with an emergency medical team.

Notes: Diabetic Alert Dogs are also known as “Blood Sugar Alert Dogs.”

Hearing Dogs

Job: To alert their deaf
or Deaf handler to specifically trained environmental sounds, including, but not limited to, alarms, doorbells, knocking, phones, cars or their name.

Handler: Likely won’t show signs of disability. May or may not speak verbal English.

Gear: Hearing Dogs don’t require special gear, but many state laws designate bright orange as reserved for Hearing Dogs.

Notes: Hearing Dogs can be trained to respond to any environmental sound or cue their handler needs to know about. Just because you can’t see what a Hearing Dog is responding to doesn’t mean he’s not working.

Medical Alert Dogs (MADs)

Job: To alert their handler to dangerous physiological changes such as blood pressure, hormone levels or another verifiable, measurable bodily symptom.

Handler: May or may not show signs of disability.

Gear: Depending on the handler’s disability, the dog may or may not have specialized gear.

Notes: Medical Alert Dogs’ jobs and functions can vary widely. Also, all DADs are Medical Alert Dogs, but not all Medical Alert Dogs are DADs.

Medical Assistance Dogs

Job: To assist their handler with a medical disability via trained, specific, mitigating task work.

Handler: Can vary widely in presentation of disability and age.

Gear: Can vary widely based on dog’s job, function and training.

Notes: “Medical Assistance Dog” tends to be a catch-all category for a Service Dog that doesn’t “fit” anywhere else. It’s also commonly utilized when the handler doesn’t feel like going into detail.

Psychiatric Service Dog (PSDs)

Job: To assist their handler with a psychiatric disability such as anxiety, depression or PTSD via specific, trained tasks.

Handler: Can vary widely in presentation but often appears to not have a disability. Often cited as having an “invisible” disability.

Gear: No special gear required.

Notes: Psychiatric Service Dogs are protected under the same federal laws that protect other Service Dogs. They must be given the exact same treatment and access rights. Note: Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Therapy Dogs are NOT the same as Psychiatric Service Dogs and are not covered under the ADA, and nor do they have any public access whatsoever.

Seizure Response Dogs

Job: To respond to their handler’s seizures via trained tasks. The dog may retrieve medication, utilize deep pressure stimulation to end a seizure early, fetch a nearby person to help or call 911. Other trained tasks are common as well.

Handler: May or may not show signs of physical disability.

Gear: Typically no special gear required.

Notes: Seizure Alert Dogs fall under this category. Please keep in mind that you cannot train a Seizure Response Dog to alert to seizures — it must be something the dog comes to do naturally via association with their human partner and an intuitive nature.

Visual Assistance Dogs

Job: To guide their visually impaired or blind handler.

Handler: May or may not show signs of visible disability.

Gear: Visual Assistance Dogs will wear a guide dog harness, typically of which at least some part is white. White is the color protected for use by guide dogs and visually impaired individuals.

Notes: Visual Assistance Dogs are commonly called “Guide Dogs” or “Leader Dogs.” Most are Labs, Goldens or German Shepherds, but they can be any sturdy, even-tempered, medium or large breed dog.

Wheelchair Assistance Dogs

Job: To assist their partner by retrieving dropped objects, opening doors, retrieving the phone, helping with transfers or anything else their partner may need.

Handler: Is in a wheelchair. May or may not be ambulatory at times.

Gear: No special gear required, but many wear a special harness to assist in pulling a chair or opening a door.

Notes: Wheelchair Assistance Dogs can vary widely in trained tasks and actual job.

2 thoughts on “Shelter Animals Can be Helped by Service Dog Programs”

  1. Autistic service dogs are just as regularly used by Autistics adults as children. We are regularly forgotten about because of Autism $peaks, and because we are rarely part of the conversations. You are doing a disservice to every Autistic because children becomes adults.


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