Disability Support: Benefits of a Service Dog to Your Child’s Special Needs

No two children with special needs are the same, so the therapies, supports, and services used in their care may vary greatly as well. While some children may only attend physical therapy, others have multiple therapies or may use a service dog for disability support. Unlike family pets, service dogs are specially trained to complete specific tasks, whether retrieving items, alerting to low blood sugar or seizures, or serving as a support while walking.  There are more than a dozen different types of service dogs performing in different capacities and helping to meet child development needs.

There is not a registry that tracks service animals, but with more than 43 million people in the United States with disabilities, there are estimated to be more than 375,000 service dogs supporting them. Around 1% of individuals with disabilities have a service animal.

Children with Disabilities and Support

Children with disabilities – whether developmental delays, physical or mental challenges, or chronic or degenerative diseases – may struggle with activities of daily living. Even the smallest movements or tasks can be difficult depending on their abilities. Therapy services can help children gain more mobility, dexterity, and independence, and this can include working with a service dog. Plus, according to ADA conditions, service dogs are allowed anywhere the public may go (with some exceptions depending on the situation), meaning children can feel more safe and confident throughout the day despite having any disabilities.

Getting a Service Dog

A service dog is an excellent source of disability support when properly trained to meet the individual’s needs. Children with disabilities should be evaluated to determine whether they could benefit from having a service animal and what type of support the dog should provide. Service dogs are a major investment, but they can make a significant different in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

How a Service Dog is Trained

There are organizations throughout the United States that train service dogs for those in need, and many have options to help defray costs as well. Research to find a reputable organization and begin the process. Remember that it can take one to two years to properly train an animal to provide necessary services. Handlers work with the dogs taking them into different environments and teaching them how to follow commands, alert, retrieve, stabilize, and do a wide range of other tasks so they can provide the best possible service and support to their owner. Not every dog is cut out to provide disability support, so have patience in finding the right fit.

Types of Service Dogs

There are more than a dozen types of service dogs, but these are three common types that support children with disabilities.

Brace/Mobility Support Dogs (BMSD)

As the name suggests, these dogs provide support while the child is walking and wear a specially designed harness or brace. They can help provide stability for children who may be unsteady on their feet and lose their balance. They’re also a sturdy support when standing up, sitting down, or bending over.

Autism Assistance Dogs

Not to be confused with therapy dogs, autism assistance dogs can help keep children with autism spectrum disorder feel calmer and safer. The dog may be trained to keep them from running or to track them if they do run. They can provide tactile or deep pressure stimulation for those with sensory issues. This can be very calming. In addition, they may assist with a variety of daily tasks as well.

Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs)

These are similar to autism assistance dogs, but they help children with all types of psychiatric disabilities. This could mean calming them in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack or providing support for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. However, they are not emotional support animals because they are trained to complete specific tasks, not just be a source of comfort.

How Service Dogs Can Help

Children with common disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, anxiety, seizure disorders, and other challenges can all benefit from service dogs.

Physical Support

Dogs selected for training as a service animal for someone with physical needs must be the proper height and weight to meet the individual’s needs. They are able to be leaned on and braced upon for support when the person is getting up and down, moving about, or participating in various activities. Their strength and stability can make the child feel more confident and give them increased independence. These dogs can also open and close doors, retrieve or carry objects, push buttons, and much more.

Emotional Support

Dogs are also a wonderful source of emotional support because they are very calming and grounding. Children who are very anxious or become upset can turn to the animal for help with relaxing and focusing. The dog can be a source of deep pressure stimulation as well, which is very calming for many. Plus, having a dog by their side that can sense and respond to their needs, as well as follow commands, can boost their self-esteem, confidence, and independence.

Dogs don’t have the reputation of being man’s best friend for nothing. They are able to learn a vast amount of commands and tasks, have incredibly sensitive noses, can alert to changes in blood sugar or oncoming seizures, and can have a very calming disposition. At Therapeutic Movements, our therapists can help families decide if getting a service dog would be benefit their child and help them function more safely and effectively.

Remember that not every dog is a good fit to provide disability support, so work with a professional organization that trains dogs to meet children’s specific needs. Therapeutic Movements can tailor therapy to coincide with the services a dog may provide while also building independence in the child and meeting other areas of need. Check out our frequently asked questions page for more information about physical and occupational therapy services at Therapeutic Movements!


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