What is a Service Animal?

A Service Animal is any animal that is trained to help humans with a disability accomplish a specific task.

Service Animal defined:

A Service Animal helps someone with a disability, most often a blind person, a person using a wheelchair, or person with specific emotional needs, accomplish a specific task or otherwise navigate the world independently.

Historical images dating back millennia, from Europe to China, depict dogs helping humans. Further, animals are well-documented to be helpful on farms and for early forms of transportation, such as riding horses or dogs pulling sleds.

However, the modern incarnation of the “Service Animal” for people with disabilities is much more recent, dating back to the 18th centuries at hospitals for the blind throughout Europe, where researchers and doctors trained dogs to help blind people walk in public without a human companion.

The first modern guide dog school opened in Germany, in 1916, by Doctor Gerhard Stalling, and a second was opened in Potsdam in 1923. A wealthy American who trained police dogs, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, saw the potential of guide dogs for blind people while visiting these early schools and penned an editorial piece talking about how the innovation of a guide dog could liberate blind people from needing a paid human companion. Many blind Americans read the post and liked it, leading Eustis to open The Seeing Eye guide dog training institute in New York.

The practice of training guide dogs flourished and received mainstream adoption as a key way to help blind people navigate the world independently. Dogs also
became trained to help those who use wheelchairs, both as mobility and guide aids but also a wide variety of other tasks including fetching personal items or even helping to stop accidents from happening.

In the modern era, the three most common forms of Service Animals are:

Dogs to help blind people navigate walking without a human companion.

Wheelchair service animals, also often dogs, trained to help wheelchair users accomplish tasks, navigate the world, or prevent accidents such as falling out of one’s wheelchair.

Emotional support animals, which can be dogs, cats, or other small breeds that help people with anxiety or other mental health challenges.

Despite the popularity of guide dogs though, some blind people prefer to not use them. The reasons for each individual vary but include different cultures where dogs are not allowed inside the home, feeling independent enough with a walking cane, not wanting to care for a dog or take it to the vet, or the individual living a lifestyle they deem unsuitable to bring a dog into. On top of choosing between dog or no dog, some people also prefer other animals. In particular, service miniature horses have gained some popularity among blind people as an alternative to service dogs.

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