Guest Post: Dungeons and Doggies

Good morning, lovely reader! I am on vacation visiting family and my eye specialist in Oregon this week! Miss Greta is at home with my husband, who has graciously allowed me to share one of his original poems with you. So, keep reading to the end for that!

Laurie Trueblood from Adventures to Authenticity and I are swapping blogs Again, so below is a delightful exploration of what the options are for including service dogs in Dungeons and Dragons. I particularly like how she highlighted the fact of limitations that come with having a familiar or animal companion in the game. It reminds me that, though having a service dog is largely a liberating experience, in reality there are still some limitations imposed by reality and by law that impact those who prefer to borrow canine eyes, or ears or paws or noses, in lieu of their own.

For more content like this, please hop on over to Lorie’s blog, linked above. And be on the lookout for My post on her site about the nature of anger and its magical properties.

Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) can be a fantastic experience for all. Their primary focus is on imagination and shared storytelling between players. In my previous guest post for Annelise, Disability Inclusion in Dungeons and Dragons,  I discussed how the game has been changing to include more disability representation for characters. But what about service animals? What would the fantasy equivalent be for Greta or other assistance animals in the D&D world? 

To start this investigation, we would need to know the rules for animals accompanying their heroes on their adventures. In Dungeons and Dragons, there are two main mechanics regarding a character owning an animal. There are animal companions and familiars, each of which has different lore, requirements, and restrictions. Could either be utilized to create an assistance animal in the fantasy realm? 

Animal Companions in D&D

In a fantasy world, animal companions can be as unique as one’s imagination. Do you want to travel with an owl, like Harry Potter, or a wolf, like Jon Snow? Or perhaps something more exotic, like a panther or a pseudodragon? The mechanics of the game make any of these possible. 

Owning an animal companion in a campaign is up to the discretion of the Dungeon Master. Some will allow anyone, assuming they can justify how said animal friendship came about, while others are more strict and only allow certain classes to have animal companions. 

For most players, these animals are the equivalent of a pet. All players have an ability of animal handling, though of differing statistics. Some have unique animal-related spells to cast. These range from charming an animal into a temporary state of trust, using an animal as a messenger, to the magical Speak with Animals spell. Bards, Druids, and Rangers may cast this spell to have the ability to comprehend and communicate with beasts for the spell’s duration. 

Based on the Player’s Handbook, Rangers are the only class that may technically have an actual animal companion. They must be of the Beast Master archetype and gain the ability at level 3. There are limitations on what type of animal may be chosen, and each has its own statistics, such as strength or speed. The beast follows its owner’s commands and fights alongside them in battle. At higher levels, animal companions can take additional instruction and may even be affected by some of the Ranger’s other spells. 

Familiars in D&D

In Dungeons and Dragons, familiars are magical animals. Some say they are normal animals given magical abilities, while others say that familiars are spirits that have taken the shape of an animal. Their game statistics are of their animal form, but they are considered celestial, fey, or fiend-type creatures.  

Familiars take commands and fight with their owners. However, unlike animal companions, familiars are summoned by a spell. Typically the Find Familiar spell is limited to wizards and warlocks, though others may gain access to it by taking certain character feats. 

A unique characteristic of familiars is that owners may see and hear through the animal’s eyes and ears. However, while communing with their familiar in this way, the owner losses their own senses, such as hearing or sight, for the duration. Additionally, their handlers may communicate with them telepathically.

Animal Companions in Real Life

How do these fantasy creatures compare with our real-life animal companions? And can we use these mechanics to create assistance animals for our disabled characters in the game? 

In real life, our most common animal companions are our pets. According to the National Pet Owners Survey, about 70% of US households own a pet, most commonly cats or dogs.

Pets can be wonderful companions in the game and in real life. Multiple studies have shown that having a pet lowers our blood pressure, reduces our stress levels, and keeps us more active. Giving a character a pet in D&D is great for adding new ideas to roleplay and animal-friendly stories. But animals that only act as pets cannot give the same level of support as trained assistance animals. 

Just as D&D has different animals to accompany its heroes, there are three categories of assistance animals in real life. And similarly to the fantasy realm, there are different mechanics and restrictions involved in the use of each. 

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals visit hospitals, schools, and nursing homes to give companionship and comfort to many people. They are trained to be calm and tolerate a wide variety of experiences. Though typically dogs, therapy animals can include cats, horses, rabbits, and others. 

 Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety, pain, and depression. However, as therapy animals are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, most institutions use them on a case-by-case basis as needed for their patients or clientele.  

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) serve a similar role as a therapy animals but support a single individual instead of a wider group of people. Their companionship provides emotional and therapeutic support to their owners. Like therapy animals, dogs are most common, but other types of animals can also be ESAs. 

Emotional support animals typically support people with emotional or mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. A mental health professional must provide a letter of medical need and recommendation for a patient to qualify for an ESA. 

Because ESAs support individuals with disabilities, they are covered under the Fair Housing Act. Federal law prohibits discrimination in housing against those with a disability, meaning that any housing rules that prohibit pet ownership must be waived for owners of ESAs. 

However, like therapy animals, ESAs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Public buildings such as restaurants or stores may refuse access to ESAs. However, state and local laws may provide legislation for some levels of protected public access. 

Service Animals 

Service animals, like Greta, are trained specifically for their role. They assist people with physical, sensory, or psychiatric disabilities to help with daily life through specifically trained behaviors.

While other animals can be trained, such as capuchin monkeys can be trained to help paralyzed individuals, the ADA only recognizes dogs as service animals. Also called service dogs, the ADA considers them working dogs, not companion animals. 

There are several different types of service dogs which vary by training and disability assistance needed. Examples include diabetic alert dogs trained to alert their handler to potentially dangerous blood sugar levels, psychiatric service dogs trained to assist someone with PTSD by alerting and interrupting panic attacks and nightmares, and dogs trained as Seeing Eye Dogs. 

There’s often great confusion about the differences and different rights of ESA’s and service dogs, so I’ll try to clear that up a bit. The ADA defines a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” An ESA’s primary benefit is in its presence, whereas a service dog’s benefit comes from its training to do a specific task or set of tasks. It is this training that sets apart the two categories. While ESAs CAN be very well-trained, well-behaved animals, their behavior is not regulated and thus cannot be guaranteed for public safety in the way that’s service dog’s can be. Thus, a service dog is allowed out in public. However, since even rented housing such as apartments are considered private residences, public safety can’t be used as an argument to block access to ESAs.

A Dog’s Ode to the 4th of July

Support Animals in D&D

Currently, there are no game modifications specifically for the inclusion of service animals. Those that want their character to have an assisting animal companion must utilize existing game rules and structure.

The closest variation for therapy or emotional support animals would be the Ranger’s animal companion. These in-game animals live alongside their owners and follow their commands. But just as in real-life, those seeking this type of support will face limitations. Players may be limited to a specific class and archetype and unable to take an animal companion until their character reaches the required level. 

While D&D animal companions may be similar to therapy or emotional support animals, service dogs are different. These dogs go through rigorous and lengthy training, becoming more than just companions. According to Guide Dogs of America, training a Seeing Eye Dog can take years and cost $20K-$30K each. And like a wizard’s familiar, service dogs can act as their handler’s eyes or ears. 

Another commonality between the fantasy familiars and service dogs is their bond. In D&D lore, there is a magical link between a familiar and its owner that is so strong that it may even seem as if they share a common existence. Similarly, service animals fulfill a critical role in the lives of their handlers, both dog and owner, working as a single unit. 

But what about communication? In Dungeons and Dragons, a magic-user can communicate with their familiar through telepathy. Service animals undergo extensive training to know how to be aware of their handler’s cues and behaviors. But with time, these dogs know their owner intimately. They become a family member and close friend. And just as two close friends seem to know what the other is thinking, these loyal dogs learn to know their handler well. To an outside observer, it may even seem at times like the communication between them is telepathic.

While familiars are the closest thing to a service animal in D&D, playing one can be difficult. Similar to creating a therapy or emotional support animal in the game, there are rule limitations and restrictions. But the most challenging hurdle for playing a character that uses the fantasy version of a service dog may be more about the other issues with disability inclusion in the game when trying to play characters that may have impairments.

The existing game rules do allow for players to have animals that accompany them and assist them in the fantasy world. Whether in battle or exploring, these creatures can support their owners in some ways similar to the assistant animals of the real world. But there are still many limitations and restrictions that need to be considered when trying to create a companion for a character.

But while these challenges exist, imagine for a moment if we could have a familiar that served as a fantasy guide? Would it look like an ordinary dog that possessed a magical soul? And is this not an excellent description for real-life assistance animals? Perhaps when seeking more magic and wonder, we should look to the assistance animals that make lives better, both in the fantasy worlds and this one.

Thanks again to Laurie for her contribution. I always appreciate how thorough and straight-forward her work is, and I appreciate her attention to an oft-overlooked population, one I identify with strongly. There are more nerds like me in the world than is generally imagined, and we deserve to be represented in pop culture and mental health care the same as everyone else!

And now, as promised, puppy poetry!

A Dog’s Ode to the 4th of July

  • Outside go “boom boom!”
  • Little dog go zoom zoom!
  • Outside go “crack crack!”
  • Little dog go “yap yap!”
  • Outside go “roar roar!”
  • Big dog go “snore…snore…”

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