Ask the Vet: Guiding Paws

Ask the Vet

By Dr Hagerty and Avery

Often we speak of animals as having a “sixth sense” or special ability to read people. There are endless examples of the intuition, patience and care that animals exhibit towards us. Growing up I had a grey Arabian mare named Sahia. She was spirited, flighty and at times a touch crazy. However, she had the uncanny ability to adjust to whatever rider was on her back. Going from a spooky, snorting typical hot-blooded horse to a nurturing, babysitter within moments.

I had the opportunity through Pony Club to be involved in a riding program at a summer camp for individuals with disabilities for a number of years. Although Sahia wasn’t your typical pick for a school horse, her sensitivity to her riders made her exceptional. When a child with disabilities rode her, from the moment they put their foot in the stirrup, she was a changed horse. She walked with care and purpose, as if treading lightly on egg shells. Her attention was focused on her rider, stopping if she felt them become unbalanced.

Although Sahia was not a true service animal, her ability to respond and help others is a perfect example of the special roles animals can play in our lives.

Service horses do exist; however, guide and service dogs are far more common. They are exceptional animals and important members of our society. They are trained to assist individuals with specific physical, neurological or mental health needs. They provide a partnership which allows for independence, guidance and assistance in the outside world for individuals who may otherwise not have this possibility.

What Service Dogs Do:

Assistance or service dogs come in all shapes and sizes, as do the services they provide. From the more traditional role of a guide dog, to the invisible role of a medical alert dog, service dogs are trained to navigate the public landscape while ignoring distractions.

Typically, we are most aware of guide dogs, assisting the visually impaired. Historically dogs have filled this role for centuries, with evidence of guide dogs being used dating back to the Roman times. Guide dogs are often Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers. When at work they may wear a special harness with a handle or vest. Other types of service dogs include Hearing dogs, who help alert their human to important noises, such as alarms, door bells or sirens. Mobility assistance dogs retrieve objects; press buttons for automatic doors, provide physical assistance and may even help move wheelchairs. Medical alert dogs are attuned to biochemical and physiological cues from their partners. They can alert the handler of an oncoming seizure or detect changes in blood sugar levels for diabetic individuals. Other canines are trained to detect allergy-inducing smells for those suffering from life threatening allergies (such as peanuts). Seizure response dogs are also trained to help individuals when they are having a seizure, which may include moving them to a safe location, alerting others of their partners distress or helping the individual recover after a seizure. Other important roles service dogs provide include emotional and psychiatric services, assisting their owners with challenges such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety and autism.


Service dogs are “at work” when with their partner is in public. These dogs are trained to pay attention to their human while taking in the ever-changing environment; they must be aware of sounds, smells, objects and people, while they filter out all forms of distractions. Years of training go into the making of a service dog, and often the specific skill set of each dog is chosen by the dog itself. Respecting their jobs and role in our society is key. Always remember Service dogs are allowed access to all public accommodations. This right takes precedence over all provincial and local laws. Fear of dogs, sterile environments or allergies are not valid reasons for denying access to any public area (although steps can be taken to make all individuals comfortable and safe in these settings).

What Can We Do?

As a community awareness is key. We are lucky enough to share the James Bay area with several amazing, talented and hardworking service dogs and their humans. Understanding their job, as well as how and when to interact with these teams is vital. Firstly, please be courteous and afford them space. We all get caught up on our cell phones, or rush to catch a bus, but be careful you don’t accidently step into the path of a service dog. Crucial moments include navigating a crosswalk or curb. As many of you know, it is important to not touch the working dog without first getting permission from its handler. Oftentimes you may interrupt the communication between canine and human. This same rule applies to your own pet’s interaction with an on-duty dog. Sensitivity and respect for the dog and handler team is paramount, however assuming they would like or require your assistance can often be more detrimental then helpful.

Even as a veterinarian, I follow this etiquette. When a service or working dog is at our practice I wait until the handler has released their dog and removed their harness. Services dogs are some of the most well trained, calm and truly intelligent canines I have the pleasure to work with. If you are walking around James Bay in this gorgeous late summer weather and happen upon a service dog and their human, take a moment to quietly and respectfully admire the trust and bound between this team at work.

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