by Erica Horn
I love my job as a dog trainer, more specifically, a service dog trainer. Although I train privately, a huge part of my job and daily life is educating the public about service dogs. Much of the time I have a service dog in training with me when I am out and about and I am frequently approached by people wishing to know more about the dog at my side. It always surprises me how little the public knows about service dogs, what they do, and the laws pertaining to them. On a regular basis I find myself explaining the very basics to people who have somehow picked up information that is incredibly incorrect. After a couple years training service dogs professionally, I swear I’ve heard it all.
So what is a Service Dog exactly? Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service dog is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Because of this specific training, service dogs are allowed to accompany their handler to any public place that allows the general public to frequent. This is because the dog is working around the clock to keep their handler safe and needs to be with the person all hours of the day.
I highly recommend visiting www.ada.gov to find out even more about Service Dogs and how they are protected by law. Although there are many more myths about Service Dogs that I’ve heard, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 that I hear on a fairly frequent basis.
1.) Anyone Can Get a Service Dog
Truth: A person needs to have a disability in order to qualify for a service dog. The ADA, which became law in 1990, defines someone as having a disability when they possess a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity(s) and/or an individual has a record of such impairments or are regarded as such. As a Type 1 Diabetic I qualify as having a disability under the ADA and therefore qualify for a service dog. The dog must also be specifically trained to perform a task that helps mitigate that disability. Having an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) that provides comfort to its handler simply by its presence does not qualify as a service dog as it does not have any specific task training.
2.) A service dog must be certified, registered, identified by a vest or have ID’s.Truth: There is no legal requirement in the United States that says a service dog must be certified or registered. Unfortunately, those websites that claim to be registration organization and to provide identification are complete scams. Also according to the ADA, the service animal does not need to be wearing any paraphernalia that identifies it as a service dog. Whether or not the dog wears a service vest is completely at the discretion of the handler. Most legitimate service dog handlers that I know prefer to have a vest on the dog announcing to the public that it is working, however, there are many who prefer to work the dog naked, without a vest. I personally prefer to have the dog wear a vest as I want the establishment/public around me to know that my dog is working and that they are not a pet dog.
3.) Any dog can be a service dog
Truth: While it is true that service dogs can be any breed, size, or even age and background there are many more things to take into account when finding a service dog. They need to have a specific temperament, their health needs to be stable, they need to be trained to a high level of service dog standards so every dog will not be an ideal fit. It is common for service dogs in training to be dropped or washed out of training programs for specific behaviors that disqualify them as ideal service dog candidates. Even well known organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind have dogs that don’t make it as service dogs because their personality wasn’t a good fit and that’s ok. Depending on what task you will want to train will play a huge roll into what type of dog you will want to select. For example if you experience dizzy spells and wish to have a service dog to help steady you and keep your balance, you won’t want to select a Chihuahua for the task as they won’t be big or strong enough to accommodate you. If you are training a Hearing Service Dog or Diabetes Alert Service Dog then size won’t be as big of a factor. It just all depends on what you are needing.
4.) Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, Therapy Dogs, & Comfort Animals are all the same thing.
Truth: This is completely untrue; each one has a specific purpose.
1. Service Dogs: These dogs are specifically task trained like I mentioned above. These dogs must be public access trained as well which means they are well behaved in public. In the United States service animals can be dogs or miniature horses while other states have other limitations or laws regarding service animals as well.
2. Emotional Support Animals (ESA): These dogs are fabulous tools for those with psychiatric or other illnesses that may need the emotional support in their home. ESA’s qualify to live in no-pet housing and can accompany their handlers to hotels and on airplanes however, because they do not possess specific task training they do not qualify for general public access.
3. Therapy Dogs: These are dogs that provide comfort for other people. While these dogs can accompany their handler to public places where they will be working (such as hospitals/retirement centers/etc.) the handler has to have permission from the establishment to have the dog there. These dogs also have a rigorous training program to complete before being able to qualify as a Therapy Dog.
4. Comfort Animals: This is just another term for a dog that provides emotional support. Again, these dogs do not have public access nor do they qualify under the ADA as a service dog.
5.) Businesses have no rights when it comes to service dogs.
Truth: Businesses DO have rights! Businesses may ask the handler with a service dog two questions to help determine the legitimacy of the team. (1) Is this a service animal required because of a disability? (2) What work or task has the dog been trained to do or perform? If the dog is an emotional support animal or if the dog is disrupting the flow of business (barking, displaying aggression, relieving inside the store, etc.) than the handler and dog can legally be asked to leave and must do so. The handler then has the option to return without the service dog. The business does not have right to ask you what your disability is, or for certification papers. Many people believe that they can skirt the rules by simply stating that it’s a service dog and that is enough to grant access anywhere but that isn’t the case.
Service dogs are a wonderful tool for many who would not be nearly as independent without them. In so many ways they provide a better quality of life for their handlers. Like with anything else, there are guidelines established so that anyone in need of a service dog can have access to one, however, because there is a lack of general information about what a service dog is many have chosen to take advantage and pass their pet dog off as a service animal.
Unfortunately it is making it more and more difficult for legitimate service dog teams to live their daily life as they are being accosted wherever they go and with information that is completely untrue. I am depending on the educated public to spread the word to the world about service dogs. Please take the opportunity to educate politely the next time you see or hear information about a service dog that is incorrect. The next time I visit that store with my service dog, I will forever be grateful that you took a few minutes out of your day to pave the way for me and my life saving service dog!
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