Girl and service dog in super hero outfits

Caring for a dependent with special needs is no small feat. If you find yourself needing more assistance as you raise your special needs child and are wondering if there are other resources and means of caretaking assistance, you’re not alone.

Many families are benefitting from the addition of a service animal to their home; as this therapeutic intervention has gained popularity in the world of special needs (for good reason).

What Does a Service Animal Do?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is trained to provide medical, physical and emotional support to an individual with a disability (seizures, mental illness, PTSD, or physical limitations).

Recent studies on human-animal interaction (HAI) reveal that companion and intervention animals encourage the health of human owners in a myriad of ways. Health benefits include lessened depression and loneliness, increased social interaction and social skills, as well as the promotion of physical activity and exercise.

A service animal, unlike an emotional support animal (ESA), is trained to help a person with a disability perform specific tasks, according to the National Service Animal Registry. An emotional support animal has its own set of benefits and purposes, though it is not as highly trained. More often than not, the service animal is a dog, trained to assist people with severe autism, Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorders, seizures, and other physical disabilities such as being blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound.

Safety Tasks Performed by Service Animals

Autism is often marked by issues with social communication, adapting to a new environment, awareness of surroundings and potential danger, and emotional regulation. Because of these factors, it can be overwhelming to care for a child who needs constant supervision and regular redirection without support or assistance.

Similarly, many families raising children with Down syndrome face daily fears of their child getting lost in a public place, having an inconsolable meltdown, or harming themselves (accidentally or intentionally). Thankfully, organizations like 4 Paws for Ability connect families with special needs children to quality, task-trained dogs.

Service dogs are trained to work with special needs children to provide a myriad of tasks in the protection and companionship of the child. Those are any of the following:

  • Safety: Many parents report a fear of turning from their child for a second, to find him/her in the neighbor’s pool, darting out into traffic, speaking to a stranger with ill motives, etc. A service dog is an extra set of eyes and ears, and is able to sense potential danger and warn either the child or an adult nearby.
  • Tracking: As alluded to above, not knowing where your autistic or Down syndrome child is at any moment of the day can bring great panic and fear. Thankfully, service dogs trained specifically to work with children with special needs can be used as tracking devices, as it were. These animals learn the child’s scent and in a “search and rescue” fashion, locate the lost child.
  • Tethering: For some special needs children who have a tendency to wander off or refuse to participate in activities (at home, school, or therapy), being “tethered” to a service dog via a leash can encourage these children to stay “on task,” or be less tempted to “escape” supervision.
  • Behavior modification/intervention: Children who exhibit repetitive behaviors (most often, those with autism) often require redirection from a trusted adult. However, in a classroom setting or large gathering setting, it can be difficult to spot and attend to such behaviors. A service dog can be trained to nudge or calm a special needs child who is showcasing troubling or unsafe behaviors. Additionally, the dog can be task trained to notice a meltdown occurring, and either comfort the child as he/she cries, or (on the parent’s command) gently lay on the child to implement pressure to mitigate overwhelmed emotions.

Companionship Provided by Service Animals

As an added benefit to the many safety outcomes provided by a service animal, this intervention also provides a sense of companionship and belonging to a child who may otherwise feel lonely or rejected. This source of friendship can act as a barrier from activities or choices that may be made out of boredom or loneliness.

Additionally, service animals may aid in social skills by responding to a special needs child’s commands or touch; the child may learn reciprocity and communication in relationships. A service dog can be a source of modeling appropriate behaviors, such as laying down and relaxing for bedtime, rising in the morning, and responding to adults or peers.

What Animals Can Legally Be Service Animals?

While dogs are most commonly trained and recruited to be service animals, according to the ADA, there are a variety of other animals that can legally go through the recruitment process. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Dogs
  • Miniature horses
  • Pigs
  • Monkeys

Animals to be used for the purpose of becoming a service animal for patients can be analyzed as a good fit for the individual on a case-by-case basis. There are a variety of factors that take precedence when choosing a service animal that isn’t a dog including the size, allergies, and behavioral characteristics of the animal species and breed.

Is a Service Animal Right for My Child?

Before leaping into the idea of a service animal, there are a few important questions to consider, including the needs and demeanor of your specific child, family details to be discussed, and other professional voices to rope in.

Questions to Ask When Considering Service Animals

  • Is my child old enough to know how to interact with a service animal (most likely, a dog)?
  • Is anyone in my family/household scared of dogs? Allergic?
  • Does my house/yard have space for a dog?
  • Is my family ready to take on the financial and caretaking responsibility of a service animal?
  • Am I willing to take on the brunt of the duties, including leading and commanding the dog in public?
  • Is everyone on my child’s care team on board?
  • Have I done my research and/or discussed this with my child’s medical team?

Once you’ve done your homework and can “check all the boxes,” as it were, you might be scratching your head, wondering, “Where do I find a service animal? Where do I get him/her trained? Now what?”

How to Get a Service Dog

Thankfully, there are incredible organizations (founded on research and anecdotal evidence) that help families connect with service dogs. If your child is ready to benefit from a service animal, and your team is equipped with the knowledge and patience needed to add this therapeutic intervention to your child’s routine, check out one of the following agencies:

It is important that your service dog has proper training and certification so that he/she is permitted to enter restricted areas (like your child’s school, the grocery store or the doctor’s office) and is equipped to handle a myriad of surroundings and situations. Confirm with your service dog agency that you’ve received the necessary paperwork and license to bring the animal wherever your child goes.

Evergreen Home Healthcare and Special Needs

Whether or not a service animal is the best choice for your child with special needs, your family can always benefit from additional team members and caregivers. If you are in need of intervention, assistance, or medical expertise, our professional staff at Evergreen Home Healthcare is highly trained to provide the services your child needs to flourish.

As the top pediatric home healthcare provider in Colorado, we are proud to offer specialized care for children, teens, and adults, including a Parent CNA Program, In-Home Support Services, Private Duty Nursing, Staffed CNA Care, and Skilled Nursing.

Whatever your family’s needs, we are passionate about providing customized and compassionate care; reach out today!