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Although most people have pets strictly for companionship, those
with disabilities often use animals to help perform every day
functions. These "service animals" are trained to provide
specific assistance tailored to their owner's disability.
Just like any animal, however, service animals can develop
disabilities and need rehabilitation as well.
There are multiple types of service animals. For example,
miniature horses are trained as guides for those who are visually
impaired or in need of mobility assistance. Even Capuchin
monkeys can be trained to help with daily tasks that require
grasping and manual dexterity. Dogs, however, remain the most
common service animal. Service dogs are generally either rescued
from shelters or bred in specific breeding programs. Although
there is not a specific breed requirement for service dogs, most
tend to be golden retrievers or labrador retrievers. One of
the main determining factors for service dogs is size because they
are expected to perform physical activities. Thus, most
assistance dogs are of medium to large size.
While these special dogs are trained to provide a variety of
tasks, the two most common jobs performed by service dogs are
guiding the visually impaired or offering mobile support for the
owner. Some service dogs can also be trained to pick up
objects, open doors, or operate light switches. In recent years,
service dogs have even been trained to help those with autism, low
blood sugar, and psychiatric disability. Amazingly, service
dogs have been able to alert an epileptic person minutes, or even
hours, before seizures.
Dr. Jacqueline Davidson, clinical professor at Texas A&M
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences' (CVM)
Small Animal Hospital, said prior to dogs joining a service
training program, they are screened for potential problems to
ensure they are healthy enough to complete their duties.
"Generally, they are evaluated for congenital conditions,
particularly relating to their vision or hearing," Davidson
said. "In addition, dogs that are of medium or large breeds
are evaluated for dysplasia of the hips and elbows. Joints
may also be checked for other developmental diseases that could
cause problems later in life."
Davidson explained that this screening process means that dogs
trained as service animals are probably less likely to develop
certain orthopedic problems as compared to those of the general
population that are not always tested for these things. She
said that there have been no reported health risks directly related
to service animals, but, as with companion animals, they can still
develop health problems over time. If a service dog does
develop a disability, through proper treatment the dog will be able
to continue to serve.
"We occasionally treat a service dog that has developed a
disability," Davidson said. "But they often return to work after
Rehabilitation is important with any animal, but Davidson said
it can be a crucial factor in the recovery of working dogs.
She explained that since service animals require a certain level of
physical ability to perform their jobs, they are expected to return
to a higher level of function after surgery and rehabilitation than
the average companion dog.
"Since service dogs have so many responsibilities, it's
important they make a full recovery before returning back to work,"
Davidson, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports
Medicine and Rehabilitation, said.
The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and
Rehabilitation (ACVSMR) is a specialty recognized by the American
Veterinary Medical Association, created to encourage veterinary
expertise in the "structural, physiological, medical, and surgical"
needs of service, working, and athletic animals.
The dedication of the new college by the AVMA shows the
importance placed on having experts in the field of rehabilitation
for service animals. When service dogs are hurt, they cannot
fulfill their jobs. Through proper rehabilitation, however,
the dogs can continue to serve their owners.
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