By: Cate Burnette

Service Animals Need Healthcare Too…

What One Alliance of Veterinarians is Doing To Help

Because good eyesight to so important to the work of the approximate 20,000 service animals in the US, the ninth annual American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) National Service Animal Eye Exam event provides a free screening-wellness eye exam to all working animals. Those animals include guide dogs, hearing assistance dogs, drug detection dogs, police/military animals, search and rescue animals, therapy animals, and those assisting people with disabilities other than blindness. This program incorporates both dogs and horses in their exams.

To be eligible, all service or therapy animals must be formally trained and certified, currently working animals with proof of active registration. Animals currently enrolled in a formal service-training program are also eligible, based on clinic availability. The client must provide all qualification paperwork to the clinic at the time of the exam along with an online registration number. This complimentary eye exam through your veterinarian is of a screening nature and is not appropriate for animals with known eye issues.

So how do these wonderful working animals assist their human partners and what effect to they have on the daily lives of persons with disabilities?


Types of Service Dogs and Their Duties

According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, the approximate 20,000 service animals in this country – which includes 10,000 guide dogs – empower their disabled owners to function with greater self-sufficiency, summon help in a crisis, and to become aware of events in the environment that might prove stressful or harmful.

The types of tasks these animals are asked to perform revolve around the physical or psychological limitations of the pet parent and, by necessity, require the animal to be able to see clearly and without hesitation.


Guide Dog TasksA guide dog’s 4- to 6-month education involves mastering a set of tasks which, taken together, allow a blind or visually-impaired person to negotiate the unseen environment with greater ease, independence and safety. Some of those duties involve:

  • Navigating their person around stationary objects, hazards, low-hanging objects and moving objects while watching for oncoming or intersecting traffic in the team’s path.
  • Signaling changes in elevation, such as stepping off a curb, going up and down stairs, warning of a ditch, cliff or other outdoor drop-offs, halting when confronted by a barrier or refusing to go forward if there is a drop-off.  
  • Locating objects on command. Some of those objects might be finding an exit and indicating the door knob from a room, finding an empty seat, locating the person’s customary seat in a particular classroom, following a designated person (waiter, fireman/police officer), finding a specified designation after appropriate training.
  • Other tasks may include retrieving dropped objects or finding specific objects, such as the morning newspaper.


Hearing Dog Tasks Hearing dogs are schooled for 3 to 6 months to alert to the specific sounds needed by their partners, primarily in the home setting. Some hearing dogs also work outside the home, alerting to specific sounds in public settings. These service dogs are trained to get the attention of their human partner by touch, either a nose nudge or a paw on hand or leg, and to then lead the partner to the source of the specific sound.


A hearing dog’s specific tasks may include:

  • Alerting to specific sounds at home. For example, a hearing dog needs to warn a non-hearing partner to the doorbell, a smoke alarm, a crying baby, a cooking timer, an alarm clock buzzing, phone ringing or someone calling the name of the dog’s partner.
  • Alerting to specific sounds away from home, such as police, ambulance or fire truck sirens, car horns, cell phones, smoke alarms at work or school, and fire drills.
  • Other duties may include the retrieval of dropped objects (keys, glasses, coins), carrying messages between spouses or other family members, warning of a vehicle approaching from behind, entering a dark home first at night to turn on any lights and provide safety against possible intruders.


Service Dog Tasks – Service dogs generally receive 6 months to a year of schooling to assist people with a wide variety of mobility issues. While many service dogs partner with humans who are severely impaired or have a degenerative disease, others benefit those people who suffer with hidden disabilities such as a seizure disorder, a psychiatric disorder, or conditions which cause chronic pain. These highly trained service animals work to provide their partners with the ability to manage pain, conserve energy, and secure a measure of self-sufficiency.


The duties of a service dog may consist of:

    • Retrieval-based tasks, such as bringing a partner the phone, picking up dropped items, fetching an out-of-reach wheelchair, retrieving a purse/wallet and unloading towels from a dryer.
    • Carrying-based tasks may include transporting items from one person to another, paying for purchases at high counters, bringing in the mail or a newspaper, and/or moving items upstairs or downstairs.
    • Deposit-based tasks; for example, dropping trash into a wastebasket, putting dirty dishes into the sink, loading clothes into the washing machine, and placing shoes or other items into a closet.
    • Tug-based tasks can include opening drawers, cupboard doors and a refrigerator with the use of a strap, closing a bathroom stall door for the disable partner, tugging off socks without biting the foot, and opening or closing drapes by pulling on a drapery cord.
    • Nose-nudged tasks are the exact opposite of tug tasks; i.e., shutting doors and cupboard drawers, calling 911 on a K9 rescue push-button phone, turning light switches on and off, and returning a paralyzed arm or foot to its correct physical position.
    • Pawing tasks are taught to those dogs who prefer using their feet instead of their noses while on duty and include the same set of assignments geared to provide access and safety to their disable pet parents.
    • Mobility assistance revolves around such tasks as opening doors, assisting a partner to turn over in bed, preventing a fall by bracing, getting a partner in and out of a bathtub, helping an ambulatory partner to walk short distances or climb stairs, transporting textbooks, and possibly working with a partner to pull a wheelchair up an incline.
    • Crisis assistance means the dog may need to bark for help on command, find a care-giver on command, hold the partner in an upright position so that a wheelchair user can take meds or access a phone, or wake up a sleeping partner if the smoke alarm goes off.


  • Medical assistance for a disabled partner can include duties such as fetching an insulin kit, calling 911 for help in a crisis and letting first-responders into the home.


Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks – The psychiatric service dog is trained to help individuals with such debilitating conditions as Panic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Depression, ailments attributed to a brain chemistry malfunction. In addition to the task training given other service dogs, psychiatric dogs must have mastered the behaviors of no nuisance barking, no aggressive or intrusive behaviors and no intrusive sniffing into another person’s or dog’s space to accommodate their partners’ emotional issues.

Even more important than assisting with everyday tasks, psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support using some of the following methods:


  • They provide tactile stimulation to disrupt any emotional overload happening with the partner. When their human experiences flashbacks, nightmares, or any other psychological distress, service dogs are trained to vigorously lick the person’s face or use a nose nudge in order to bring the partner back to full awareness and interrupt any inappropriate behavior.
  • When tactile stimulation doesn’t work, psychiatric service dogs can cause an abrupt change of scene to ‘break the spell’ of emotional overload. For example, a dog can turn on room lights, switch on the television, fetch a beverage or medication, or initiate a game of ‘tug toy’ to vanquish the distressing thoughts, feelings and images and prevent sleep disturbances of their person.
  • These dogs are taught to wake up their human partner for work or school. Panic Disorder, PTSD, and Major Depression can disrupt normal sleep patterns. Success has been noted in fighting back against avoidance behavior, apathy or withdrawal by having the service dog respond like a hearing dog to the alarm clock in the morning. It may also be possible to train the dog to go by his internal alarm clock to eagerly awaken the person at a certain hour of the day, through use of a feeding schedule or, if not motivated by food, by the promise of a walk.
  • Those who suffer from panic attacks have reported that the deep pressure of the weight of a medium size dog or a large dog against their abdomen and chest has a significant calming effect. It can shorten the duration of the attack and often prevent the symptoms from escalating. This same task performed by service dogs on autistic children and adults prone to panic attacks has become known as ‘deep pressure therapy’ in the assistance dog field.


To get a visual idea of exactly how service dogs affect the lives of their human partners, you can watch this short, informative video.


How is a veterinary eye exam performed?

Whether your pet is a service dog or just your furry companion, eye exams should be an integral part of your pet’s annual health exam. During an ophthalmic (eye) exam, your veterinarian may perform a number of tests. These tests can help identify problems with the eyes or underlying diseases that may affect the eyes. Your vet may recommend that a veterinary ophthalmologist – an eye-care specialist – evaluate your pet if the eye problems are found to be chronic or extensive.


A complete veterinary eye exam should include the following tests:

  • A visual exam of the eye and its functionality. The veterinarian may observe how the pet moves around the room or if he or she follows a cotton ball when tossed near the eyes. A menace test may also be conducted to see if the pet blinks when a finger is moved toward, but without touching, the eye.
  • A Schirmer Tear Test to determine if your dog is producing enough tears to properly lubricate the eye. This test works by positioning a small strip of paper in each lower eyelid and holding it in place for 60 seconds. A gauge on each strip indicates the amount of tear production.
  • A fluorescein stain test shows any painful abrasions or ulcers on the cornea that cannot be seen without a vet exam. During this procedure, the vet or vet tech drops a small amount of fluorescent, lime-green dye on the eye and the cornea is examined under a blue light looking for scratches or divots in the tissue.
  • An intra-ocular pressure reading will be taken using a device called a ‘tonometer.’ Testing for glaucoma (high eye pressure caused by improper fluid drainage within the orb), a few drops of liquid ocular anesthesia are placed on the cornea to numb the eye surface. The vet will gently tap the tonometer on the surface of the eye several times to get an average eye pressure number. High pressure is a sign of glaucoma – a symptom of unchecked diabetes and some genetic disorders, while low pressure may be a sign of uveitis (inflammation of an interior layer of the eye).
  • Your vet can facilitate a thorough inspection of the fundus (the back of the eye) by dilating the dog’s pupils and examining the interior of the eye, including the retina, the optic nerve and the interior blood vessels.


Because a service dog’s ability to see the world around him is so important to the safety and independence of his disabled human partner, regular eye exams are necessary. The ACVO’s commitment to service dog health with National Service Dog Eye Examination Month and free exams allows people without veterinary health insurance to get much-needed healthcare for their canine life partners.



Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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