Service dogs first emerged as a method to assist visually impaired people. However, over time, their role has expanded from being simple guide dogs for people who are blind, and they are now trained to help people with hearing impediments and physical limitations, as well as those with invisible disabilities like PTSD and autism. So, unless someone has an obvious disability, it’s hard to know what the service dog is doing to help. However, this does not mean they don’t need the dog.

What is an Invisible Disability?

Disabilities cannot always be seen. Unfortunately, when people think about the term, they often imagine a person in a wheelchair or with a walking cane. Yet, most conditions that we don’t think of as disabilities, such as asthma and mental health conditions, are actually in that category. It is estimated that out of the over 42 million Americans with a severe disability, 96% of those disabilities are invisible. This means they do not use any obvious assistive devices, so disability cannot be determined solely by whether or not a person uses them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers a disability to be any physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. Disability can also be described as living with a challenge that makes it difficult to perform certain daily life functions. Therefore, invisible disability refers to forms of disabilities that don’t manifest in ways that are immediately noticeable to others. 

The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) succinctly defines invisible disability as a physical, mental, or neurological condition that is not noticeable from the outside but can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities. 

Common Characteristics of Non-Visible Disabilities 

Invisible, silent, or non-visible disabilities have several characteristics that make them challenging to identify. Thousands of illnesses, disorders, injuries, or impairments can make day-to-day life much harder. Some common indicators of hidden disabilities include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorientation and more

Examples of How Service Dogs Assist People with Invisible Disabilities

Service dogs are professionally trained to perform various tasks directly related to a person’s disability. Their tasks are meant to enable their handlers to participate in daily life activities and become more independent. Below, we look at some cases of invisible disabilities and how service dogs can help.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

These are dogs meant to help individuals with severe mental conditions like PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Some of the tasks they perform include:

  • Warning their handler of an oncoming psychiatric episode
  • Safely wake up a person when they are experiencing night terrors
  • Providing deep pressure therapy to calm their handler
  • Help people with hallucinations distinguish what is real and what is not
  • Interrupt harmful behaviors 
  • Performing room safety checks
  • Providing a calm and comforting presence in uneasy situations

Seizure or Epilepsy Service Dogs

The Epilepsy Foundation approximates that 65 million around the world suffer from epilepsy. The condition is caused by abnormal electrical brain activity that causes a person to experience seizures. The seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Service dogs are trained to assist through the seizure. Although some dogs have an innate sense to warn their handler of an impending seizure, training will not equip a service dog with this skill. However, a service dog can perform some of the following tasks in the event of a seizure attack:

  • Help prevent injury by staying close to the person and moving away any dangerous objects
  • Seek help by barking or activating a medical alert device
  • Help stimulate a person to wake up following a seizure
  • Provide support and companionship

Diabetic Alert Dogs

Service dogs can be trained to alert their companions of high or low blood sugar before it becomes an emergency. Training involves imprinting, where a puppy is introduced to the scent of high or low blood sugar. After imprinting, the dog is trained to be a Diabetic Alert Dog and perform specific tasks when they notice abnormal blood sugar levels. This may include tapping someone with their paw or bringing a particular object.

Handler Abbey and her diabetic alert dog Darby show how she is trained to catch high blood sugars and alert Abbey:

@abbey.n.darby #alertdogdarby #servicedog #t1d #diabeticalertdog #type1diabetes ♬ Yellow (Slowed) – Coldplay

Autism Service Dogs

Service dogs for autism perform two essential tasks to support their handlers. One, they provide behavioral to assist their companion with behavioral difficulties and anxiousness. Two, they address orientation concerns; for example, when their companion finds it challenging to maintain their focus, they can help get them back on track and re-oriented in what they are doing. 

Other tasks that service dogs can perform to assist people with invisible disabilities include:

  • Seeking help in the event of an emergency
  • Reminding their handler to take medication
  • Help retrieving items from the floor, cupboard, and other places
  • Offer companionship

Service Dog Stigma for Invisible Disabilities

Service dogs assisting people with invisible disabilities are not met with the same marvel and admiration as those helping people with more obvious disabilities. Their handlers are often looked at with contempt, and the legitimacy of their conditions is even questioned. There are cases of people being asked to prove their disability or that their dog is a ‘real’ service dog. Although the ADA explicitly states that service dogs are not required to have any documentation and permit them in all public areas and businesses, people with invisible disabilities still get harassed by some establishments. 


@servicebearmabel Things you need to stop telling people with invisible disabilities #servicebearmabel #servicedog #servicedoglife #servicedogsoftiktok #servicedogteam #servicedogs #disabled #disability #invisibleillness #invisibledisability #disabilityawareness ♬ original sound – Mak & Mabel 💜

What Can You Do?

It is essential to know that the impact or validity of a disability is not based on your ability to perceive or understand how to perceive it. Instead of being quick to judge, we should always practice mindfulness. Telling people with invisible disabilities that they don’t look sick is inappropriate and unnecessary. If you must ask questions, remain polite, courteous, and kind.

To support awareness and advocacy around service dogs for invisible disabilities, consider donating to Justice Speaks or call us today.

Leave A Comment