When people think of dogs and the disabled, usually the mental image of a blind person comes to mind, complete with a beautiful dog wearing a special harness - but did you know that there are many other types of Service Dog out there, specially trained to assist human beings who live with any number of physical and mental disabilities?

For the disabled, Service Dogs can mean the difference between a life indoors and a full life in the real world, and, in addition to the assistance they can offer, they provide something else: a living creature who doesn’t define their best friend’s personality by their disabilities.

Among the most well known service dog specialties are:

  • Guide Dogs for the Blind. These dogs assist their human partners in navigating safely from place to place. These are the most often seen service dogs.
  • Hearing Dogs assist the hearing impaired by alerting their human partner to sounds such as doorbells, smoke detectors, or crying babies.
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs can open and close doors, help their partner get dressed or undressed, pick up items that are dropped, carry items in a backpack and even assist in pulling a wheelchair.
  • Walker Dogs can do many of the same tasks that a Mobility Assistance Dog does, and in addition are specially trained to help their partner walk by acting as a counter-balance aid.
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs are trained to never leave their human partner’s side. They help the mentally disabled and vulnerable in numerous ways directly related to their handler’s personal situation.
  • Seizure Alert Dogs are trained to respond to convulsive seizures by either staying with their handler or by seeking help. These dogs can even be trained to call 911 using specialized equipment.
  • Combination Service Dogs are trained to assist people with multiple disabilities. For example, a Walker/Seizure Alert Dog, or a Guide Dog/Psychiatric Service Dog.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, all Service Dogs, from all categories, are allowed full access to any public or privately owned business facilities that serve the public in the United States, and are not required to wear a harness or a garment that identifies them as a service dog (although such a garment really helps when explaining to the uninformed that this dog is a service animal and you are legally allowed access to their business with the dog).

Getting a service dog is an interesting process. If you opt for the "typical" approach, you will need to locate a program that trains them, then apply. The waiting time after approval can be as short as six or seven months for a Guide Dog to as long as six years for other types of Service Dogs. Once you have been approved and notified that there is a dog for you you need to spend two to four weeks at the program facility, training with and getting to know your dog.

The cost for Service Dogs from programs ranges widely, from free of charge all the way up into the thousands of dollars. Unless you live close to the training facility there are also travel costs and hotels to consider.

For those people who want to get started with a Service Dog immediately, without the wait, there are a couple of ways in which this can be done.

One way is to get a dog, then locate a trainer who will train the dog to do those tasks which you need the dog to aid you with. The other way is to train the dog yourself.

I have trained my own service dog. There were many reasons why I decided that this was the best option for me. For starters, I chose my own dog, finding one whose personality suited mine.

I originally planned to get the dog as a puppy and teach it basic obedience first, then slowly begin teaching it each of the several assistance tasks that I needed it to perform for me. By beginning work with my dog when it was still a puppy, I would establish a strong partner bond with the pooch from the very beginning of its life.

Instead, I ended up adopting a beautiful six year old girl from the humane society, one whose personality and demeanor were ideal for me and my situation. Cana learned her tasks quickly, and after a few months, I was unable to imagine how I managed without her here before!

Another benefit to training my own was that while Cana learned, I got more and more assistance from her as the time passed. Instead of waiting for a fully trained dog, I had a partially trained dog who could perform some of the tasks that I needed done. As time went on Cana mastered more and more of those tasks until she had reached her full training. As the training progressed my daily life became easier and easier.

Finally, I trained my own dog because I love playing fetch and I love having a friend who looks at me with their loyal hearts in their gentle eyes. I had a dog who was not just my assistant, but also my best buddy, somebody who I could play with and cuddle and yes, even lean into her shoulder and cry when my pain level was too high to cope with in any other way.

When my second husband dumped me for my best friend, he walked out with Cana. So far I have not attempted to replace her. I don't know if I ever will.