September is National Service Dog Month. The relationship between a service dog and its handler is, in my opinion, one of the most extraordinary kinds of human-animal bonds. Animals enrich our lives in many unique and special ways, but the service dog is an invaluable companion for individuals with disabilities. While many types of animals provide many types of aid, not every assistance dog is a service dog. This month, we’ll get to know some of these “helping hounds.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is defined as a dog that has been specifically trained to do work, or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Such tasks must be related to the handler’s disability, with the aim of mitigating the effect of said disability. Service dogs are trained to help handlers with physical, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric, or mental disabilities. Some of the most common tasks performed by service dogs include (though are absolutely not limited to), guiding handlers who are blind, or have low vision, pulling a wheelchair, alerting a deaf handler to sounds, or to the presence of others, assisting a handler during a seizure, alerting a handler to the presence of life-threatening allergens, retrieving dropped items, dialing 911, providing stability to a handler with balance or mobility problems...the list is both impressive and extensive! For the sake of clarity, service dogs are sometimes categorized as follows:
A guide dog is trained to help navigate a handler who is blind, or has low vision. While they are often referred to as “Seeing Eye Dogs”, this term is only correctly used to describe dogs trained at a specific facility in Morristown, New Jersey.
A signal dog, or hearing dog, is trained to assist a handler who is deaf or hearing impaired. They signal the occurrence of certain sounds, (such as sirens, alarms, phones, doorbells, etc.) by giving the owner an alert. Signal dogs may also be trained to alert the handler to the presence of other people or objects.
Medical alert dogs
A medical alert dog may be trained to recognize the subtle changes in body chemistry that precede a life-threatening event. For example, a medical alert dog may trained to warn an epileptic owner that a seizure is about to occur. Others can alert a diabetic handler to dangerous changes in blood sugar, or alert a handler to the presence of life-threatening allergens or toxins.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
A mobility assistance dog may pull a wheelchair, help steady individuals with balance or coordination issues, or retrieve dropped objects. Again, this list is not comprehensive.
Psychiatric service dogs
A psychiatric service dog may be trained to assist handlers with anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, or other psychiatric disabilities. They must be trained to perform tasks that specifically help to alleviate the clinical signs of the handler’s disability. For example, a psychiatric service dog may alert a handler to the presence of something that might trigger an anxiety attack. If a handler is at risk of slipping into a dissociative state and walking into dangerous situations, a psychiatric service dog can be trained to physically block the handler from harm.
This list has been truncated for the sake of brevity, so if you have an awesome service dog in your life, we’d love to hear about him or her in the comments.
Service dogs and their handlers have rights and privileges that are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. By law, service dogs are defined as working animals, not pets, and are therefore legally permitted to accompany their handlers wherever the general public is allowed. Establishments that do not allow pets are required by law to make exceptions for service dogs. Denying entry to a service dog due to allergies, fear of animals, or concerns over hygiene is a violation of federal law. I’ll go into more detail in a later column, but the bottom line is that service dogs can go anywhere we can. Handlers must be able to control their service dogs at all times.
While therapy dogs also receive extensive training, their work is very different than that of service dogs. Therapy dogs are well-behaved dogs with stable temperaments who provide emotional and psychological therapy to people other than their handlers. These dogs typically visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, hospice care centers, mental health facilities and other such institutions. They are encouraged to interact with as many people as possible, as opposed to a service dog, which must focus solely on the needs of the handler.
A therapy dog may provide comfort to patients, or help build the confidence of children who are recovering from injuries. While the work they do is important and valuable, therapy dogs are not designated as service dogs. They are not afforded the same rights and legal protections as service dogs, and are not permitted in places where pets are generally not allowed. While a service provider is legally obligated to allow access to a service dog, they are not required to do so for a therapy dog.
Emotional Assistance Animals
An emotional assistance animal, or ESA is not the same as a psychiatric service dog. An ESA does not require any specialized training, and does not perform specific tasks aimed at reducing the consequences of a handler’s disability. They are handled by people who have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and many other psychiatric disabilities.They provide comfort and security to their handlers simply by being present.
Like therapy dogs, ESA’s are not designated as service dogs, and are not allowed in establishments with “no pets allowed” policies. However, the Department of Justice/HUD’s Fair Housing Act does allow ESA’s to live in residences with “no pets allowed” policies. This is considered a “reasonable accommodation”. Additionally, the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act allows ESA’s to accompany their handlers in the passenger cabins of airplanes. In both of these cases, documentation must be provided by a mental health professional stating the need for the service animal. This cannot be done by a veterinarian or a dog trainer.
Due to the vast number of individuals fraudulently claiming their pets are ESA’s or psychiatric service dogs, many legitimate handlers complain that their rights are being violated, or their privileges are being eroded. This is a huge problem, and is one of the reasons it is so important to understand the proper roles and designations of these animals. Throughout the month, I’ll talk about ways to legally - and politely - interact with service dogs and their handlers. And if you’re one the aforementioned service dog “fakers” I’ll be talking about you, too. Fair warning: you may want to take cover!
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