Most of us are familiar with service dogs to some extent. However, there’s a lot more to learn about their invaluable roles in our communities. It’s likely that when most hear “service dog,” they immediately think of guide dogs for blind or low vision people with; we often see these dogs in training as they learn to safely navigate through our towns and cities. Indeed, the very first guide dog, as recalled by the IGDF, was issued in 1916 to a war veteran who had lost his sight. Since then however, following decades of advances in training techniques, dogs have been widely used to assist people with varying disabilities.
Dogs have become lifelines for many people, as the most intuitive and adaptable domesticated species. They live comfortably side by side with us, they’re extremely receptive to training, and they have an eagerness to learn –– so it’s not surprising their resumes have expanded as far as they have! But what else is there to know about service dogs?
A Service Dog's Duties
The services dogs provide cover a vast array of human support needs, from guiding those who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, have mobility disabilities, to providing alert assistance relating to allergies, seizures and medical needs. Within these areas of support, more specific training is given to enable the dogs to respond to particular circumstances. For example, a seizure support dog may alert a person to a pending seizure, respond to a seizure by activating an alarm, and assist during a seizure by keeping the patient safe.
Service Dog vs Emotional Support
As well as providing support for those with physical disabilities, dogs can also assist those with emotional or mental needs. People living with a mental illness or disorder can benefit greatly from an emotional support dog. By providing companionship and comfort, these dogs provide real assistance to people who suffer from distressing episodes, spells of anxiety, and so on. They’re not technically considered service dogs however, which can be a divisive subject. And SymptomFind explains how they differ, from training methods through to current legal stances. While support dogs can be trained to help owners, the training is not carried out in the same professional manner. That is to say, well-trained dogs providing comfort are still not recognized as service dogs.
It is important to note along similar lines that there is also such a thing as a psychiatric service dog, which is different from an emotional support animal. While both can be used by individuals who suffer from anxiety or other mental conditions, a psychiatric support dog is specifically trained to recognize and respond to symptoms; an emotional support dog is simply there for comfort.
Here are some examples of what a psychiatric assistance dog might do:
- Recognizing and interrupting repetitive or self-harm behaviors
- Alerting their person when someone is coming up behind them
- Waking their person up from night terrors
- Creating space between their person and other people in public settings
Of course with advancements in professional training we would expect to see more service dogs working within our communities –– but the statistics may be surprising. As we have previously discussed in our “Must-Read Service Dog Statistics” post, there are currently 500,000 working service dogs in the U.S. However this number does not include the many service dogs that disabled individuals have trained themselves. And while this is an impressive number, there are still many people waiting to be paired with a suitable four-legged companion. Unfortunately, with the cost to properly train a service dog ranging from $15,000 to $30,000, and funding limited, availability is not guaranteed.
About the Dogs
It wouldn’t be unusual to picture a service dog as a Labrador, Retriever or German Shepherd, as these are among the most common breeds we see. However, the truth is that any breed can become a service dog, but not all dogs have what it takes to become a service dog. The main considerations are behavioral. A service dog needs to be confident and comfortable in all public settings, and around people and dogs. They cannot display any significant fear or anxiety. And even the best trained dog may be far too stressed and unhappy working as a service dog, and it would be unethical to force the dog into that job.
Service Dogs and the Law
Though amendments can always occur, the laws around service dogs are thankfully up to date, and focus on eliminating any discrimination against those with disabilities who use rely on these animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers guidelines to assist businesses and state and local governments with their accommodation of service dogs. In essence, anywhere the public can go, service dogs must also be allowed to go, whether or not there is a “no pets” policy. No organization or person can legally ask for documentation to prove that a dog is a service dog, nor can they request demonstrations of tasks.
While these guidelines initially appear to be straightforward, there are some other aspects to regulations that lead to confusion and, unfortunately, disagreements. For instance, a business or government office can ask that a service dog be removed from the premises if the dog’s presence is “fundamentally altering” the nature of the establishment or what it provides. Similarly, a dog deemed to be “out of control” can be kept out. These are not unreasonable concepts, but because they are built on somewhat subjective distinctions, confusion can ensue. A given business owner who would simply prefer not to accommodate a dog can claim that the dog is altering the nature of the premises and start a dispute even if the claim is baseless.
Nevertheless, the intent of the law surrounding service dogs is for them to be widely embraced and allowed. Our blog post celebrating the ADA goes into further detail about service dogs and the law.
There is so much more to learn about service dogs, but we hope you found this article insightful. Even learning a little bit about these animals and their place in society reveals how incredibly important service dogs really are in our society.
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog and offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact email@example.com