Support Animals 101 for People with Developmental Disabilities
Animals provide companionship, loyalty, unconditional love and affection for their owners. With September being National Service Dog Month, now is a great time to think about whether a support animal is right for you or your loved one.
Here is a quick overview of everything you need to know about care animals for people with support needs.
What are the benefits of having a support animal for people with I/DD?
Research suggests that animal companionship can improve the quality of life for individuals with autism or intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD). Support animals, such as dogs, can help people who have difficulties with communication, building relationships, and physical tasks.
On a practical level, support dogs are acutely aware of the smallest behavior changes in their owners. Trained dogs may be able to detect when something is wrong faster than a human. They can respond quickly in the case of panic attacks, emotional crisis, and epileptic episodes to help mitigate the effects of a crises.
The benefits of having a support animal include:
- Promoting relaxation
- Reducing the stress hormone cortisol
- Boosting endorphins and improves mood
- Reducing symptoms of depression
- Encouraging social interaction in individuals with autism
- Increasing self-confidence
- Reducing boredom
- Increasing daily physical activity
- Helping achieve a higher level of independence
- Reducing chronic pain and symptoms associated with fibromyalgia
- Decreasing hear rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate
What Can a Support Animal Help With?
There are three types of support animals, and each can help individuals with disabilities in different ways. It is important to identify what kind of support you require to determine what kind of animal is right for you.
1. Services Dogs
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” In other words, a service dog can do tasks that help mitigate an individual’s disability. This includes assistance with mobility, such as opening doors for individuals who use wheelchairs, fetching objects on the ground, and the providing stability while walking.
For individuals with developmental disorders, a service dog can help communicate the individuals’ needs to others and alert caregivers in case of emergencies. Service dogs are allowed to accompany their owner wherever they go and are exempt from regular rules prohibiting dogs in indoor settings. However, training a service dog can be an expensive and time-consuming process.
2. Emotional Support Animals
Having an emotional support animal can be incredibly beneficial for individuals diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, which are common among people diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities. Animal companionship has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression by boosting endorphins, improving mood, and building confidence in their owners.
Emotional support animals are considered pets and are not subject to the same rigorous training as service dogs. In fact, you can train your current pet to be an emotional support animal with some time and effort. However, emotional support animals must meet certain qualifications to be certified and need to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional.
3. Therapy Animals
Therapy animals do not reside in a family home but instead work in clinical settings to provide care and affection to different people. They are trained to be comfortable being handled by new people and be unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements. Regular sessions with therapy animals can have a positive effect on individuals’ mood and behavior. Visits with a therapy animal (whether it is a dog, cat, pony, or other animal) is a good option for people who are in a situation where caring for a pet at home is not an option.
Should I get a support animal for myself or my loved one?
There are important practical considerations to be aware of when deciding to get a support animal. First, make sure that you, your loved one, or anyone else in the home is not allergic to the animal. Also, be aware that it might not be an instant success! It takes time and effort to build a bond; both the animal and the individual must get to know each other’s needs and habits and to learn to communicate with each other. Despite the challenges, having a support animal can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
How Do I Get a Support Animal?
The path to getting a support animal is different depending on the type of support animal you choose. Here are a few resources and organizations that provide assistance with finding a support animal.
- Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA): Train and provide service dogs for children with autism.
- International Guide Dog Federation: Train and provide guide dogs for people who are blind or have low vision.
- Paws with a Cause: Nonprofit that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.
- Pet Partners: National non-profit specializing in therapy animals.
- Love on 4 Paws: non-profit, volunteer-based organization in Los Angeles specializing in therapy animals.
- Emotional Support Animal Laws in California: Overview of laws around emotional support animals in California.
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