A service dog can play a crucial role in the life of a disabled person, and there are many incredible tasks that a dog can be trained to do that will enable their handler to live a more independent and safer life. But what does it take to become a service dog? And what does the life of a service dog actually look like? Keep reading to find out what being a service dog is all about, and the journey that dogs and their handlers go on together.
A Service Dog Must Be Well Behaved in Public
Service dogs and their handlers have public access rights. This means that they can go anywhere that the general public can go (with a few exceptions). Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are expected to be well-behaved in public and house broken. The ADA though, does not define specific criteria for what “well-behaved” looks like. It does state that if a service dog displays signs of aggression or is not under the control of their handler , that the handler may be asked to be remove the dog from the premises. While the specific definition for “well behaved” is unclear, many in the service dog community have consistent expectations about how a service dog should act in public. Furthermore, Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a leading authority within the international service dog industry, has set standards as to how a service dog team should behave. Many organizations, such as Atlas Assistance Dogs, ensure that their service dog teams are properly trained to meet these expectations. To be recognized as an Atlas Certified Team, the handler must successfully pass our Public Access Test (PAT).
*The ADA does not require any form of certification for a dog to be recognized as a service dog. Atlas Certification is a recognition of successful completion of our training program.
Expected Behavior in Public
Service dog training goes far beyond basic obedience and good manners. The behaviors and skills that are expected of them need to be proofed both in calm, low distraction settings, as well as busy public areas such as stores, restaurants, public transportation, and wherever their handler typically goes. Below are some of the general expectations that many in the service dog community have of service dogs (but, again, not legal requirements):
- Dog can walk in a heel position next to the person
- Dog does not seek attention from the public
- Dog is unobtrusive to the public. For example:
- Dog will lay under the restaurant table or tucked by their person’s feet so that they are out of the way of other patrons or waiters
- Dog can respond to cues in a timely manner
- Dog does not resource guard food, toys, or people
- Dog can walk past other dogs and stay focused on their handler
- Dog responds to their handler around distractions and can be refocused easily if necessary
And of course, the dog has at least one trained task that mitigates their person’s disability. The latter is a legal requirement under the ADA. However, most service dogs are trained for more than one task and Atlas, as well as ADI, requires three trained tasks.
See below a video of a service dog in training, practicing his good behavior in a store. He is learning to walk next to a shopping cart, in a heel position, and do some short distance recall.
Atlas’ Expectations in Public
As previously noted, our clients and their service dogs must complete a Public Access Test once they have completed training with us. Our PAT covers some of the above points, and more. The intent of our training and PAT is not just to ensure the dog has proper behavior in public, but also to ensure our service dogs are happy in the work they do, and that the team is as prepared as possible to navigate their everyday life with success. We want to see our teams thrive together. In addition to the above, some (but not all) of our expectations are:
- Dog is not fearful of children, adults, or loud noises
- Dog tolerates having their paws, tail, mouth, and ears touched by a stranger
- Dog can be separated from their handler and handled by someone else
- Person can keep dog safe in all public environments including around cars, doors, elevators, and any equipment the person regularly uses
- Person can read their dog’s body language and knows how to advocate for their dog
- Person understands their rights as a service dog handler and is prepared to answer questions
Below is a video of how we teach our clients to keep our dogs safe going in and out of elevators:
Service Dogs are Not Robots
Service dogs are not robots. Even the best trained service dog can have a bad day, and that’s okay! What does a bad day look like? The dog might startle and bark; the dog might sniff at something they weren’t “supposed” to; the dog might not sit when asked to sit; the dog might pull on the leash. Or maybe someone came up to the dog and started petting them without permission from the handler or made a lot of “kissy” sounds. Even a service dog can lose focus because of that. That is why it is so important to not distract a service dog while they are working. It can be incredibly embarrassing for someone to have their service dog have these “off” moments. There is so much pressure for a service dog to be “perfect,”, that any mistake can make the person feel incredible shame as they do not want people to think their dog is a “fake” service dog. But what matters most in these situations is how the dog recovers and how the person helps their dog. Sometimes, the dog is communicating that they need a break and that the environment is just too much for them in that moment. It is the handler’s job to understand their dog’s needs and address them appropriately for their dog’s well-being. Or, it could have just been a little mishap in that moment. The handler can redirect their dog, get their focus back, and continue on with their day. Service dogs deserve the same compassion and understanding that we would give a person.
The Life of a Service Dog is Not for All
Clearly, the life of a service dog is a busy, and sometimes challenging and stressful one. The right dog thrives in their working role. But not all dogs can and want to be service dogs. Service dogs do so much more than tagging along with their person to the store. They are taking in constant information from the world while working to remain focused, calm, and ignoring the many sights and smells that naturally appeal to dogs. Depending on their job, they may be wearing heavy mobility gear, or having to stay extremely attentive to their person’s physiological changes and needing to act quickly in the case of a medical or psychiatric event. They are engaging with the world in a very different way than the average pet dog does; it can be draining. Dogs who are not suited and thriving in this type of work should not be forced into it simply because they have good obedience skills and “can.” Many disabled people consider training their own dog as a service dog, and this can be a great option. It is important to consider all aspects of the dog, including the work they will be asked to do for their person and if that is fair to ask of them.
* Important note: pet dogs who do not help individuals with disabilities should never be passed off as service dogs and brought into non– pet– friendly spaces; both for the dog’s sake as well as for the sake of other service dog handlers.
Service dogs clearly have a lot of responsibilities and need high– quality training to achieve the standards that many expect of them. They are performing hard, stressful, but incredibly important jobs that not all dogs can add to their resume. But they are still dogs after all, and for that, they also get to have plenty of fun. Just like us, they are not always on the clock. Service dogs get to play, go on sniffy walks, have other dog and human friends, cuddle up, and get yummy treats… just because! We hope you now understand a little more about what the life of a service dog can look like. If you are considering training your dog as a service dog, think about where they are today. Is this a job that they will be happy doing? And are you ready and motivated to take the necessary steps to help your dog achieve the necessary level of training? It is hard, but incredibly rewarding work!
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 as well as 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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