Many of us are familiar with assistance and service animals such as guide dogs, however, our animal friends can do so much more than you may first imagine. There are a broad range of animals that are so much more than a pet, and they can improve our lives in a great many ways. Let's take a look at some of the different kinds of animals that can benefit people with disabilities.
Perhaps the best known of the service animals, guide dogs help people who are blind or have limited vision to negotiate their way around the house or town, identify potential hazards, and safely help their handler go about day-to-day life.
Many veteran guide dogs can even learn to navigate to destinations such as the local café or office through a simple command such as ‘go to the office’.
Guide dogs undergo a rigorous training program from puppyhood, and only the very brightest make the grade. That's because they work in extremely demanding situations, so the utmost concentration is required - they are even trained to ignore temptations such as food whilst at work! It takes over $30,000 and two years for a guide dog to be ready to step into their role. It’s not just canines who can help us, miniature horses can also be an alternative to a guide dog. According to the Guide Horse Foundation, miniature horses 'have shown great promise as a mobility option' and are particularly adept at keeping their handler safe. That's because they display excellent judgment and concentration, and aren't easily distracted by other people or animals.
Dogs can also assist people who are deaf or have hearing loss - the acute hearing of certain dogs makes them excellent for this job, and they are trained to identify all manner of everyday sounds such as doorbells, smoke alarms, ringing telephones, or alarm clocks.
These dogs distinguish between the different noises, and work by alerting their owner via physical contact that something may need their attention. They can also lead handlers to the source of the sound, whether it's an oven buzzer or a doorbell. How clever is that?
Service animals can also assist people with physical disabilities, autism, mental illness, or other types of disabilities.
These animals can complete tasks like opening and closing doors, turning off the light, or making a noise to indicate that attention is needed in some shape or form. They can also provide physical support with balance and stability, retrieve medication, as well as pull wheelchairs.
Service dogs can also assist individuals should they have a seizure by raising the alarm or lying next to them to prevent injury, and even alert susceptible people to the presence of allergens.
Interestingly, not all assistance animals are dogs. In the USA, organizations offer capuchin monkeys to assist those with spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities, and pigs who are highly intelligent, can make wonderful service animals. Monkeys in particular, with their dexterity and advanced motor skills can complete complex tasks such as fetching a drink of water complete with straw, loading CDs or DVDs, and turning pages of a book.
Therapy and companion animals
Animals aren't limited to helping us in only physical ways. They can also help soothe and improve our mental wellbeing, and almost any animal can be used for this purpose, from fish to birds, rabbits and cats.
For children with autism, studies have found that when animals such as dogs, cats, and even guinea pigs are present, they can experience less anxiety. Part of this lies in the fact that animals are non-judgmental, accept us for the way we are, and provide unconditional love. Children are also less likely to withdraw from social situations when their companion animal is with them.
For adults who have autism, animals can also provide similar benefits and can often help calm someone in moments of anxiety – petting, hugging, or having a dog put pressure on the person by using their paw or lying on them creates a calming effect.
For all of us but particularly those with anxiety or depression, animals can improve our mental well-being by reducing tension and improving mood, as well as being loving companions. They have even been found to lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, and can be trained to disrupt impulsive or self-harming behavior.
Therapeutic horse riding is another way our furry friends can be of assistance. Designed for people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and others with a lessened motor function, it has been shown to help improve balance, posture and mobility over time, on top of lending emotional benefits.