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Work Like a Dog: Exploring the World of Service Dogs

When it comes to helping people, dogs have a long history of living alongside humans and working with them in the field. Within the past century, dogs have found another way to support their human companions by providing support and physical assistance.

In honor of National Service Dog Month, we took a look at service dogs, delving into how they are able to assist their owners and the incredible feats which they are able to perform. Keep reading to gain an appreciation for service dogs and learn about how you can support service dogs and their owners.

History of Service Dogs

The first seeing-eye dog was in America in 1928, when a blind man Morris Frank made his way onto to the streets of New York City with his dog, Buddy. Guiding him through the busy streets, onlookers quickly began to realize that Buddy was allowing Morris to live a full life and participate more fully in society. Guide dogs for the blind quickly gained popularity and were assimilated into American culture as soon as 1929.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that dogs began to perform more duties for their owners. In 1976, National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) was founded. Originally they trained dogs specifically for those with auditory impairments and deaf individuals, with the canines alerting their owner to noises such as the phone ringing or police sirens. They expanded to include dogs for children who are on the Autism spectrum in 1996, and they recently added dogs for Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2012.

The term “Service Dog,” was made official in 1990, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This ruling allows dogs into public areas with their owners. 

While many people think of service dogs as dogs who assist those in wheelchairs and other motility issues, there is a huge list of ways which dogs can support those with disabilities. These working companions can do so many things for people.

Dogs have been trained to scent detect low blood sugar in people with Type 1 Diabetes. Seizure alert dogs notify their handlers when they exhibit pre-seizure behavior; seizure response dogs move their handler to a safe location and call an emergency contact in the event that an epiletic seizure happens.

Physical disabilities are not the only conditions which dogs can be trained to assist with. Service dogs provide mental health aid as well. Psychiatric service dogs can interrupt and redirect those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who may inflict self harm, or provide tactile stimulation for someone in the midst of an anxiety attack.

Know the Lingo

While people unknowingly lump them into the same category, it is important to understand that there are very big distinctions between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals.

Service dogs are the only dogs which fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task (or tasks) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. A service dog does not require any sort of certification and are allowed to travel with their owner to any public space, including the grocery store, coffee shop, or their favorite restaurant.

There are a number of organizations that will certify therapy dogs. Therapy dogs must be very well trained and need to pass a series of tests before they receive certification. They are not given ADA rights, but they participate in powerful and popular programs such as visiting hospitals and nursing homes, calming distraught victims in courtrooms, and the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program where children are allowed to read aloud to dogs.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are the least regulated dogs within this grouping. All that is required for an ESA to hold official status it to have a licensed mental health professional write a letter on their letterhead that states the owner receives emotional support from the animal (typically a cat or dog). There is no special training for an emotional support dog, and they are not included within the ADA. Certain airlines allow ESAs to fly with their owners, but it depends on the individual policy of the airline.

The Goals of a Service Dog

Denise Mazzola, BFA, CPDT-KA, the Founder and Owner of Everything Dog in Keene, NH, has been training dogs for over 30 years. Originally her passion was obedience showing with her own dogs, but she then began fostering and training service dogs for the non-profit Canine Working Companions in Waterville, NY (this program is now defunct due to lack of funding). After serving as the head dog trainer at the Monadnock Humane Society, Denise turned her skill set into a private business to help individuals with their dogs with training and consultation services.

Denise is currently working with two people who are working to train their dogs to be service dogs. “It is important to remember that dog training is dog training; no matter what you are teaching the dog, it should all be done with the end goal in mind.”

Service dogs require a unique personality in addition to their specialized skill set. The dog in question needs to be absolutely bombproof, social with people, and not sensitive to sounds. Service dogs should not be high energy and need to ignore dogs and environmental distractions, focusing solely on the handler. When evaluating a service dog, there is no “right” breed; dogs are evaluated based on their individual qualities. Denise is currently working with a purebred Golden Retriever and a mixed-breed rescue dog from the local animal shelter.

“It’s not an easy process to train a service dog,” explains Denise. “The dog has to learn to use their life-saving behavior everywhere and know to apply it in certain situations. Many times a dog picks up their teachings easily at home, but has difficulty utilizing their knowledge in a more public setting.” A dog also needs to understand what is appropriate depending on the circumstances. For instance, licking someone’s face is a common way to alert those with cardiac conditions, but a dog needs to have an additional way to communicate if licking their owner’s face would be unsafe, such as when they are driving a car.

Training a service dog is a time-consuming process, making service dogs difficult to get. Many non-profit programs take applications, and dogs are assigned on need-based and fit-based basis. Other candidates for service dogs purchase an appropriate puppy and work with a qualified dog trainer to teach the dog about their new responsibilities.

Take A Stand

Some people have taken advantage of the ADA policies and utilize the ruling to bring their household pet with them everywhere that they go. Often purchasing an “official” vest, leash, or harness online, they venture into grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and more.

Denise says, “Fake service dogs make it extremely hard for those who truly have and need a service dog. The ADA has made it very clear that service dogs do not need to have any form of identification, yet, business owners have come to expect it due to the large number of dogs which wear service dog apparel.” In addition to this, some business owners begin to think poorly of service dogs, due to the poor behavior of fake service dogs.

“True service dogs need to be extremely well behaved. They must focus on their handler and cannot disrupt the environment, only in case of emergency,” explains Denise. “They also must have specific training to perform one behavior to mitigate a person’s disability.”

One of the best ways that you can support service dogs is to protect their reputation and take a stand against fake service dogs. Legally, there are two questions which can be asked of people with service dogs. According to the ADA, in situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, business staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Denise explains that if asked politely, these questions should never bother the owner of a bona fide service dog. “When service dogs are placed with disabled owners, we explain the ADA law to them and explain what is expected. These two questions are necessary, and owners understand that they may be asked at any time.” No additional questions may be asked. 

Fake service dogs make it hard to make policies regarding true service dogs and block deserving people from being placed with a dog which can assist them. “Unfortunately, people take advantage of the system,” says Denise, “which can make it difficult for owners of service dogs.”

Make a Difference

If you want to get involved within the service dog industry, there are a number of ways in which you can support them. Properly trained service dogs can cost in excess of $20,000 due to the high level of specialized training which they require. This can make them cost-prohibitive to many deserving people who would benefit from a dog’s support.

One of the easiest ways to help is to make a monetary or time donation to a non-profit organization which provides service dogs and service dog training. Dog and puppy donations also can be made, typically by breeders, if they have an individual which they believe has the ability and attitude to become an exceptional service dog.

Volunteering as a foster parent is another way that dedicated canine enthusiasts can help. Puppies are placed with foster parents, who raise them through the first year to 18 months of their lives. These puppies must not only learn toilet training and basic commands, they must be highly socialized to assist their high-level training they receive later in life. Foster parents bring these puppies everywhere with them until they are deemed ready for their specialized training.  “A lot of people don’t understand how long it takes to train a service dog,” says Denise. “It is typically at least a two year process.”

The rewards of getting involved are endless. According to Denise, “The service dogs which I have raised and trained, all of those people reported a better quality of life after the introduction of their dog. People who received seizure alert dogs were able to confidently leave their house. Dogs with PTSD training help their owners through difficult days and situations. Dogs with training for severe anxiety help their owners rejoin society. When you train a service dog, you truly make a difference in someone’s life.”

John Billings, an early American novelist once wrote, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” When honoring service dogs, it is incredible to see their intuition, caring behavior, and dedication to their disabled companions. 


One Response to Work Like a Dog: Exploring the World of Service Dogs

  1. AshDay October 11, 2019 at 19:55 #

    Unfortunately, the train has left the tunnel with the whole service dog and emotional support dog abuse. Especially as Americans have become more attached to their pets, frequently elevating them higher in status than children. Combine this with the ego-centric American culture, and everyone thinks it’s their right to have fido by their side and be darned whether it’s right or not.

    The only way to circumvent this mess is to have a registry for legitimate service and emotional support animals. Those with disabilities may find it inconvenient, but it’s the only way to reclaim the reputation of service animals and restore legitimacy. You can’t rely on the public or put the responsibility on them to figure out who is legitimate and who is not with only being able to ask two questions. This is basically asking one to do a job with one’s hands tied, and the cost of error is thousands in fines for discrimination.

    I have two legally blind family members, one having had a guiding eye dog, and also have a family member with cerebral palsy. The fact is for many things in life they, even for those non-disabled, one has to have to have all sorts of paperwork to do lots of things. Driver’s license to drive, ID card if you can’t drive, handicap sticker on your car if you need accessible parking, letter of medical necessity for any small piece of medical equipment you might need, the list goes on. This is really no different with a service animal registry.

    Supporting legitimate service animals is frequently requested by the service animal community, let’s give the public the tools to do so. Until then, two questions and a lot of faking will continue to be the status quo for all things service animal and emotional support animal.

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