Celebrating Service Dogs by Understanding Their Roles

It takes more than simply wearing a vest to be a legitimate service dog

September is National Service Dog Month. And as such, it’s a perfect time to celebrate the unique and extraordinary bond between service dogs and their handlers.

While animals may enrich our lives in a myriad of ways, service dogs are invaluable partners for individuals living with disabilities. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly common to use the term “service dog” loosely.

In other words, a legitimate service dog must do far more than simply wear a vest.

What is a Service Dog?

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a service dog is defined as a dog who has been specially 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 effects 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, alerting deaf handlers to both sounds, and the presence of others, assisting a handler during a seizure, 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:

Guide Dogs

A guide dog is trained to assist in navigating 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 who have been trained at a specific facility in Morristown, New Jersey.

Signal Dogs

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 (sirens, alarms, phones, doorbells, etc.) by giving the handler 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 be trained to warn an epileptic handler that a seizure is about to occur. Other can alert a diabetic handler to dangerous changes in blood sugar, or alert a handler to the presence of life-threatening allergens.

Mobility Assistance Dogs

A mobility assistance dog may pull a wheelchair, brace 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, PTSD, depression, or other psychiatric disabilities. They must be trained to perform tasks which 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 a panic 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, feel free to mention your partner in the comments!

Service dogs and their handlers have rights that are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. By law, service dogs are defined as working animals as opposed to pets. They are considered as necessary as wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, or any other kinds of medical equipment. They are therefore legally permitted to accompany their handlers wherever the general public is allowed.

Establishments which do not allow pets are required by law to permit entry for service dogs. Denying a service dog entry due to allergies, fear of animals, or concern over hygiene is a violation of federal law. The bottom line is that service dogs can go wherever we are allowed to go. Handlers must be in control of their service dogs at all times.

Both large and small dogs can work as service dogs, and they are not required to display ID or wear any type of vest. Unfortunately, both IDs and vests are widely available for purchase, but neither will turn a pet into a service dog. In fact, in the state of Florida, service dog fraud is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 in fines and six weeks of prison time.

Therapy Dogs

While therapy dogs also receive extensive training, their work is very different to that of service dogs. Therapy dogs are highly sociable dogs with stable temperaments who provide emotional and psychological comfort 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, who must focus solely on the needs of the handler. A therapy dog may provide comfort to patients, or help build the confidence of individuals who are recovering from injuries or trauma. While the work they do is important and valuable, therapy dogs are pets, not service dogs. They are not afforded the same rights and legal protections as service dogs, and are not permitted in places where pets are 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 Support Animals

An emotional support 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, learned tasks aimed at reducing the effects of a handler’s disability. They provide a sense of comfort and security to their handlers simply by being present. Like therapy dogs, ESAs are considered pets, not service dogs, and are not allowed in establishments with “no pets allowed” policies.

However, the Department of Justice/HUD’s FairHousing Act does allow ESAs to live in residences with “no pets” 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 ESAs or psychiatric service dogs, many legitimate service dog handlers complain that their rights are being eroded. Service dog fraud is not a victimless crime, and it is vital that we respect the rights of working animals and their handlers.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.

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