Animal companions help us in many ways, but there is a class of working dogs so special we’ve included them in the law of the land. Apparently, this was completed in a bit of a hurry because the designation system uses inconsistent nomenclature and leaves many people out to sea on this matter. Sorting out the types of dogs that provide assistance to humans and considering the many awe-inspiring ways that they do so, is our goal for today.
An assistance dog, known as a service dog in the United States, is a dog trained to assist an individual with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. ADA disabilities include both mental and physical conditions, and a condition does not need to be severe or permanent to be a disability.
Other dogs that are associated with this topic include facility dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals. Although there are similarities with regards to their function and behavior requirements, there are important distinctions, particularly as they relate to ADA protection.
Fast Fact – Dogs may wear vests, special harnesses, or tags, but the ADA does not require service dogs to be registered, wear vests, or display ID. The vests were established as a “best practices” effort to keep members of the public (grumpy restaurant managers or grabby children) informed of the situation.
The key distinction concerning service dogs is they receive protection under the guidelines of the ADA since they are specifically trained to mitigate their partner’s legally defined disability.
This means that service dogs are legally permitted to have access to a handler’s workplace and public facilities where pets are normally not allowed. Special housing accommodations must be conferred to service dogs, as well as cabin access on commercial flights.
Not all disabilities are apparent, even to the most observant maître d’. When it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, only two questions may be legally presented to the handler: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The primary example here is the courthouse facility dog. They are used to assist special victims and vulnerable witnesses during legal proceedings.
Special education teachers may also use facility dogs to improve interactions with students. Psychologists, physical therapists, or other healthcare professionals handle facility dogs to ease recovery and symptom management.
Facility dogs are often confused with therapy dogs. However, facility dogs are more highly trained, work full time, and are handled by a working professional. Therapy dogs generally have less training, volunteer part time, and are handled by their owners.
A person with a facility dog must have permission from the premises before they can enter with their animal. Facility dogs are working dogs, but not service dogs, and are not protected under the ADA.
Owners of therapy dogs volunteer to visit a variety of settings to deliberately cheer people up. Therapy dogs bring joy and reassurance to hospital patients, assisted living center residents, or stressed travelers in airports. Therapy dogs are also used to alleviate stress for victims of traumatic events or disasters. Therapy dogs are pets and not defined as service dogs under the ADA.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
ESAs are animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. The ADA distinction between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals expresses that a service dog would be trained to sense an anxiety attack and would perform a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact. Since only the mere presence of an ESA provides comfort, it is considered a pet and not a service animal.
HOWEVER, state and local governments have enacted laws that allow owners to take ESAs into public places where pets are normally not allowed, and owners of ESAs may be eligible for access to housing that is not otherwise available to pet owners. Additionally, many airlines permit travelers to bring ESAs into the cabins on commercial flights under specified conditions (e.g., a signed letter from a medical professional).
Fast Fact – Courts have approved animals other than dogs to provide relief to individuals. These include bunnies, guinea pigs, horses, and yes, even cats.
Service Dog Training
Service dogs need to be trained to perform their specific assistance work, and they need additional training so they won’t be a nuisance in public. ADA or no, if your service dog poops on the karaoke stage or starts humping Chuck E Cheese, they can kick you out of there.
Service dogs may be specially bred, a rescue dog, or a dog already in the family. Established organizations such as Guide Dogs for the Blind maintain their own breeding stock to ensure healthy puppies with desirable traits.
Service dogs may be trained by charitable organizations, professional trainers, or their handlers, and training is typically completed by the time the dog is two years old. The cost of training varies, but may be as high as $25,000.
The ADA does not require service dogs to be trained with a designated professional or a specific program. Those decisions are left to the owner, and lately, more disabled people are self-training their own service dogs.
Fast Fact – The TV show Rescue Dog to Super Dog (2016) featured the process of carefully selecting rescue dogs from shelters to train as assistance dogs.
Service Dog Tasks
Dog duties may vary from picking up dropped items and taking laundry out of a washing machine to interrupting self-harming behaviors or providing deep pressure therapy for an autistic person. Service dogs can even call and then open the door for arriving EMTs.
Hearing dogs, or signal dogs, help the deaf and hard of hearing by alerting on overhead announcements or people waiting to be noticed.
Medical alert dogs are trained to signal the onset of a medical issue such as a seizure or low/high blood sugar, or alert the user to the presence of allergens.
Mobility dogs assist individuals who use wheelchairs or walking devices. They can pull wheelchairs, provide momentum assistance, and even help make the bed.
Guide dogs assist the blind and the visually impaired by alerting their handler to low hanging obstacles or slip, trip, and fall hazards.
Psychiatric service dogs assist individuals with disabilities such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post–traumatic stress disorder, and many other conditions.
Examples of work performed by psychiatric service dogs could include entering a dark room and turning on a light to mitigate a stress-inducing condition, interrupting repetitive behaviors, or reminding a person to take medication.
Service dogs may also:
-Wake up a handler having night terrors
-Retrieve medication from a designated location
-Nudge an unconscious handler into a recovery position
-Place items in a shopping cart, and even pay the cashier
-Deposit garbage into a can or place items onto a countertop
-Assist handlers in and out of bed (or chairs, bathtubs, pools, etc.)
-Alert caretakers to an emergency condition (unconscious handler)
-Burrow under legs of unconscious handler to raise blood pressure
-Provide tactile grounding via nuzzling or licking during a seizure
Fast Fact – The most common breeds trained as service dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Breeds like Great Danes and Saint Bernards receive high marks as mobility assistance dogs.
During the last decade, the use of service dogs has rapidly expanded. As service dogs have become ubiquitous, so too have issues derived from a lack of understanding about service dog training, working functions, and access to public facilities.
Regulatory agencies, service dog trainers and providers, and transportation and hospitality industry groups are working to address these challenges. Meanwhile, the benefits service dogs provide also continue to expand.
Unfortunately, ADA laws are abused by people who misrepresent their dogs as service animals. This further confuses the public, and affects the reputation of legitimate service dog handlers. A poorly-trained imposter is a liability rather than an asset, and state and local governments continue to pass laws that make it an offense to misreport a service animal.
Featured photo – Kaiser. German Shepherds are frequently used as service dogs because they have excellent problem-solving capabilities, responsiveness to training, and good communication skills.
Assistance Dog Organizations
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Assistance Dogs International
NEADS World Class Service Dogs
American Service Dog Access Coalition
Canine Companions for Independence, Inc.
Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans
Additional duties that service dogs may be trained for: