It’s widely documented that guide dogs are used to help those who are blind and visually impaired to go about their daily lives independently. However, animals can also help those who have other illnesses and disabilities—sometimes in an official capacity, and sometimes not. It is undeniable that animals have, for many years, provided great companionship to humans. But the reality is that they do so much more!
What Are The Health Benefits Of Owning Animals?
Statistics suggest that even people who haven’t already been diagnosed with health conditions or a disability could actually benefit from animal ownership.
Having an animal around can lower cholesterol, reduce your chance of stroke and even affect the likelihood of survival after suffering a heart attack.
Such animals can also help your children, by building their immune system and helping them to develop skills they’ll use to socialise better with others. In children with ADHD, it can be beneficial to them to learn routines related to caring for the animal, which can come in useful in other areas of their life.
What Can Service & Assistance Animals Be Trained For?
A service or assistance animal takes things a few steps further, and as such, they are not to be thought of as “pets”. They are highly trained animals which can help with a range of illnesses, disabilities and conditions. In addition to guide dogs and the work they do in helping those who have problems with sight, service animals can be trained to recognise loss of consciousness, to sense seizures in those with epilepsy, to sense changes in the blood sugar of diabetics and to work as hearing dogs—but this list is not exhaustive.
More recently, animals can be used to provide emotional support to people who have conditions such as anxiety or PTSD. They can even be used to respond to the needs of those on the autism spectrum.
Service animals are quite commonly referred to as working animals, and their responsibilities vary. They can be trained to use a basic phone, to bring things to people, or to alert others if something bad has happened. They shouldn’t be disturbed from their duties, so please don’t pat another person’s service animal!
How Do Animals Improve Mental Health?
When someone is suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, it can help to have animals around for comfort. They reduce your stress levels, improve your mood and even help you to socialise.
Animals can sometimes give a person a sense of purpose, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also sometimes a positive distraction to have responsibility for caring for something other than yourself, and in turn, you’re more likely to look after yourself if you know an animal is relying on you.
There are numerous benefits to exercise, which is something which is often difficult for people struggling with mental health conditions. However, having an animal which requires regular walks gives people a reason to get up and about. It can also help with social anxiety—the animal acts as an ice breaker in a social setting.
What Does The Law Say About Service Animals In Australia?
The laws vary from country to country. Here in Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 states that a service animal:
(a) is accredited under a State or Territory law to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effects of disability; or
(b) is accredited by an animal training organisation prescribed in the regulations; or
(c) is trained to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability and meets standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.
This means that you have to go through proper channels and training programs to get your animal registered, with medical professionals signing off on your need for it in order to get legal rights.
In theory, service animals can basically go anywhere, except for certain wards in hospitals, operating theatres and commercial kitchens. However, you should still notify places such as your new building management or airlines in advance, to show them your proper paperwork. People do not have to let you into their private homes with your service animal. However, denial of service to anyone with a service animal in public places amounts to direct discrimination. Providing your animal is properly registered and your animal has legal recognition, you must not be treated any differently because you have one.
What About Emotional Support Animals?
Typically, there are some legal distinctions between emotional support animals/therapy animals and service animals. In Australia, the law surrounding emotional support animals is more complicated. This is because they often cannot be trained to perform specific tasks, unlike service animals which can. In those instances, while they provide companionship, they have the same legal status as pets and therefore cannot usually be taken everywhere with you.
There are some exceptions, which aren’t based on a certain diagnosis, but rather what the animal can actually help you do. If you’re in need of an emotional support animal to help you live your life, a doctor can write a letter confirming your disability or condition, prescribing an assistance animal to you. The application requires them to state how an assistance animal’s presence can help make you better and improve your condition. The only way to give your pet legal rights is by having it certified as an assistance dog.
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