Dogs are man’s best friend, as the adage goes. While most people appreciate that a dog can be a great company and good for security, some need a dog to help them with everyday tasks. Of course, a dog can be all three—a loveable canine pet that will shower you with affection, a watcher who is always alert and ready to protect its master, and a loyal friend to aid you with mobility issues.
Having a mobility service dog can be a lifesaver and provide independence often lost with mobility impairing conditions. A dog can be a reliable companion with you every step of the way, making life easier.
What is a Mobility Assistance Dog?
A mobility assistance dog is specially trained to perform various tasks their human owners may be unable or struggle with as a result of a condition affecting mobility.
Mobility assistance dogs can be trained to:
Get help in an emergency
Service dogs of all types are often trained to find help in emergencies.
Push buttons and flip switches
Automatic door and elevator buttons are a common task left to mobility dogs, especially for individuals in wheelchairs. They also can turn lights off and on.
Open doors and drawers
In the home, doors, cabinets, drawers, and other openings can be set up with pull ropes so that service dogs can open and close them.
Mobility dogs can be taught to pick up any dropped item on command as well as retrieve items they have been taught what are. For example, everyday objects such as a cellphone or remote control.
A dog can be taught to carry objects. This task is often done with the help of a special backpack.
Mobility dogs can be trained to act as a crutch to help those who might be in danger of falling over in the case of strength or balance issues. In this case, the dog usually wears a vest with a handle similar to a cane.
Finally, when properly outfitted, a service dog can help pull a wheelchair up a ramp, quickly across a crosswalk, or through a threshold. As wheelchair pulling is one of the more controversial mobility dog tasks, it’s important to note that the dog is not forced to pull the wheelchair all the time.
This isn’t an all-inclusive list. Mobility assistance dogs can be trained to do many tasks depending on your needs. Though, it’s important to keep in mind that many tasks require some form of tools, such as the pull ropes used for cabinets and interior doors.
Can Any Dog Provide Mobility Assistance?
While any breed can be trained to become a mobility assistance dog, the suitability of the breed must match the owner’s needs. For example, a small breed dog is not suitable for someone who needs a dog to provide stability while they walk via a walker vest. It may also not be able to reach things like automatic door buttons.
As a result, most mobility dogs are medium to large breeds with a height of a minimum of 23 inches and a weight of at least 50 pounds. This requirement will vary by the owner’s size and mobility assistance needs.
Regardless of the breed, before beginning training, the dog should undergo a veterinarian’s examination to ensure good health. For stability dogs, joint health, in particular, is essential. The duties of a mobility assistance dog of this type require them to regularly bear the weight of a human being, which can place extreme strain on joints.
Intelligence, common breed traits, health issues, and ease of training should also be considered. Some breeds are far easier to work with than others. Some also have traits that tend to be detrimental to the training process, such as high prey drive (these dogs tend to chase anything that moves quickly).
The most common breeds seen in mobility service include:
- Labrador and Golden Retrievers
- Doberman Pinschers
- Standard Poodles
- German Shepherds
- Newfoundland Dogs
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Great Danes
- Most of the taller “bully breeds”
- Large livestock guardian breeds
Mixed breeds of the proper size and temperament also make excellent service dogs, and, of course, even breeds on the recommended list should be evaluated on an individual basis. A good mobility assistance dog should possess certain traits.
Traits to look for:
- Eager to please
Traits to avoid:
- Fearful or timid
- Overly energetic
- High prey drive
- Easily distracted “squirrel!” type dogs
Generally, a good initial step is to see how a dog reacts to basic training. How quickly did the dog learn? Does the training hold up in unfamiliar situations? A dog that does poorly with basic commands is very unlikely to pass the intensive training required for mobility support dogs. Typically, the best candidates respond to commands on the first occurrence upwards of 90% of the time.
What Kind of Training Does a Mobility Service Dog Need?
There are no set guidelines in the United States for training a mobility service dog as their duties are individualized to their companion. That said, it is not a quick process. Properly training a service dog can take more than two years, depending on the duties desired. International standards require at least 120 hours of training for over six months.
While you don’t have to train your dog yourself—and doing so isn’t recommended unless you are highly educated on the topic—you should be involved in the training process. Not only does this help strengthen the bond between service dog and owner, but it also trains the dog to respond to your commands specifically. You can find pre-trained service dogs for sale—often with costs over $25,000—but nothing beats the bond of a dog you’ve trained from a young age.
You can hire a personal trainer, or there are also less-hands-on training services you can participate in. The latter is more common for applicants who can’t perform all aspects of the training process. Even in that case, though, the dog should still have regular interaction with its future owner.
Mobility service training is usually started around 8 weeks of age (basic training and evaluation is done at this stage that is not explicitly service-related). It’s not recommended to attempt to train older dogs for service work as pre-existing behaviors can prove dangerous. It can be done, but the training drop-out rate is much higher.
Who Can Own a Mobility Assistance Service Dog?
To apply for a mobility assistance service dog, you must have some form of physical or psychiatric disability as diagnosed by a medical professional. These regulations are in place because service dogs, in general, are granted certain rights that a typical pet or even emotional support dog is not.
Service dogs are often allowed in the cabin and free of charge on airlines, for instance, and are permitted into restaurants and grocery stores. A business can’t forbid a registered service dog access to their premise—whether they have a no-pets policy posted or not.
Of course, in addition to the legal fees, as with any dog, you need to be sure that you have means to take care of your mobility assistance dog. You must have adequate facilities for the dog. Dog’s don’t need much, but they should have a place to use the bathroom, warm shelter, high-quality food, and medical care.
In short, service dogs are reserved for those who have an impairment, disorder, or disability that prevents movement and mobility. Any illness that prevents you from living independently due to a lack of mobility will qualify you for a mobility dog.
Steps to Getting a Mobility Assistance Dog
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a formalized process for getting a mobility service dog. Generally, it begins with choosing a dog, followed by training, and that’s it. Service dogs of all type don’t require any form of certification, and business owners are not allowed to ask for proof of any form of certification.
You can only be asked two questions in regard to your service animal legally: Is this a service animal, and what task is the dog trained to perform. However, generally, designated vests and registration paperwork from the US Service Animal and Support Animal Registry (ESA) can help speed any confrontations along. Some proof is often required for housing and airline travel as well. Landlords may request verification of a dog’s status as a service or emotional support animal.
ESA registration includes an ID with a photo of your dog, his or her name, date of birth, breed, registration number, registration date, and your name and address. The card also has legal information about service dogs and your rights as a service dog owner. If you qualify, you can also apply for an ESA doctor’s letter that is valid in all 50 states—so everything you would need to defend your dog’s status as a mobility support companion.