What Is A Service Dog?

What Is A Service Dog

 It used to be that dogs, which were working dogs, were generally only used in our communities as guides for the blind and in police work. Now, off the top of my head, and without too much effort, I could easily think of nine different ways we now train dogs to pick up on various needs, or that function in the community to protect us. No wonder we call them "man's best friend"!

Increasingly we are using dogs to assist those who have a physical or mental disability - and these are known as service dogs.

What Is A Service Dog?

In summary, the definition of a service dog, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "is 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".

And similarly, as our understanding of the body and mental health grows, the understanding of who someone with a disability is no longer limited to what we can see. It now extends to those who suffer from mental illnesses, or those who suffer from less obvious medical conditions.

So, when I came up with my list, which included police dogs in the force - including sniffer dogs, those used in border control and quarantine searches, and pets in aged care homes and schools, it was impressive. Although these animals do great work in our communities and are valuable assets for keeping us all safe or giving emotional support, they don't fall into the 'service dog' category. 

Before we go much further, we should look at therapy dogs. These dogs in service are a valuable help to many people with disabilities in our communities. According to the ADA's definition, these are often considered by the public to be service dogs, but they aren't. This is because of several reasons:

  • They are not supporting just one person (i.e., their handler).
  • Often therapy dogs will be found at aged care homes, medical practices (e.g., social workers or other counseling type therapies), or schools. They support many who need reassurance or may just need some extra love.
  • The tasks they do are of a general nature.
  • Often, therapy dogs are for companionship, comfort, and emotional support, whereas service dogs have been trained to react to certain conditions that affect their handler's safety.
  • They do not have the same legal freedoms as a service dog.
  • Service dogs are permitted to go where animals (even therapy dogs) are often not allowed, as long as they have their handler with them, and they do not compromise hygiene or the safety of others. For example, you can't just take your pet or even therapy dogs to Broadway, but service dogs are permitted, providing it is safe for all parties.
  • Sometimes these animals are not dogs.
  • Other animals can be used for therapy, not just dogs. Miniature horses, llamas, cats are all used. The ABC reported a few years ago that a man considered his pet ducks to be therapy animals, and no doubt, having them was very helpful for his depression and PTSD.
  • However, the ADA defines a service animal explicitly as a dog, and part of this is because dogs can be trained to perform tasks that make life safer for their handlers.

Service Dog? Therapy Dog?

So, what sorts of tasks would a service dog be trained to do, compared to therapy dogs?

Like any job, the task varies with the occupation. But here's a few types of service dog that you may or may not be aware of:

  • Guide dogs for those who are deaf or blind
  • Seizure alert dogs
  • Diabetes/blood sugar spike alert dogs
  • Autism support dogs
  • PTSD and other psychological or psychiatric service dogs

From this small list, you can see that the tasks would not just involve emotional support, but are directly related to an individual's health where certain circumstances could endanger it somehow.

Who Gets To Decide If You Need A Service Dog?

There are many organizations that supply service dogs. To determine if you need one from a particular organization you must apply to that agency. Whether or not you qualify for a service dog may depend on the availability of a suitable dog, the level of need for you to have a dog, or even how practical your environment is for a dog living in it. Can a dog, when it is living in your home, adequately perform the tasks it is trained to perform as a service dog?

Here's a list of some of those agencies:

  • Guide Dogs for the Blind
  • Paws with a Cause (for Hearing)
  • Canine Partners for Life
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs of America 
  • Autism Service Dogs of America or 4 Paws for Ability
  • Department of Veterans Affairs

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but it is a start. 

Each dog is individually trained for at least a year before spending time with a training companion to get used to concentrating on its handler when there are distractions present, like balls or cats. 

As an aside, to help these animals do their best, it is always a good idea to check before patting them. They are working dogs, not pets, so it's only fair to allow them to do their work or perform tasks without disruption. They may be trained, but they are animals after all and may go back to their native instinct when interrupted. 

What Happens If You Make An Application To An Organisation And Can't Get A Service Dog?

As the cost of training these animals is high, not all who apply for an animal will be able to receive one. Like many things in life, many people with disabilities may benefit significantly from having a therapy or service dog, but the funds are not there for it to happen.

But this does not mean you cannot have a service dog. With some disabilities, it is possible to train a dog yourself, or with the aid of someone else, to have a dog trained to perform some task that will assist in daily life. 

Some dogs are more readily trainable than others, which is why you often see certain breeds used in certain occupations. For instance, German Shepherds are commonly used as police dogs and Labrador Retrievers as Guide Dogs. In any case, the service animal breed you choose should be able to learn basic commands at the very least. Otherwise, your service dog will be a great emotional support, but not so helpful in, say, assisting with helping deal with a crowded space. So your dog being able to be trained to do work is very important. 

Your dog must be a breed and temperament that suits you too. After all, this will be a lifetime companion. It is pointless considering having a furry service dog if you are allergic to dog hair. It might be worth considering a dog that sheds less hair, like a West Highland Terrier or a Poodle. 

(Although, as an aside, studies have shown most allergies are triggered by protein components of pet dander {dead skin that flakes off} in addition to pet saliva and urine, rather than the actual hair.)

At this point, it may be time to consider if your need for the animal is for a service dog or more heading towards being a therapy dog. If this is the case, your options may extend to choosing another animal apart from a dog. Of course, if you plan to have a service animal for sensing a danger, then choosing a dog will probably be the better option. Unlike in the past, when only certain breeds were considered suitable for service dogs, the choice of breed is not restricted in any way now. The only thing stopping your choice of a service animal is its ability to learn and follow appropriate commands or respond to various triggers.

Service animal training is a specialized field, so taking your pet to regular dog training will not be adequate, although not a total waste of time. It is not only pets that need to know how to sit or not to jump on people. Service animals need to know these basic things too. Taking your potential service dog to basic training will give you a fair idea if the animal you have chosen is suitable.

Although your relevant organization may not be able to provide you with a service dog, it may be able to direct you to a suitable trainer who specializes in service animals and trains dogs specifically for people with disabilities. The Department of Justice may also have a list of people trained in service dog services.

Where Can My Dog Go?

As discussed earlier, there are guidelines and rules about where animals can go and can't go. Dogs and other animals that fall into the category of 'therapy dogs' often have the same restrictions on them as the average household pet. The main difference is that they are allowed into aged care homes, schools and hospitals, and other places where an animal is used for therapeutic assistance or emotional support.

These dogs are trained to help more than one person and often will be used where groups of people need their assistance.

Service animals (usually dogs) are given more freedom about where they can go. As the use of service dogs for a variety of disabilities has increased, state and local government guidelines and laws have had to change accordingly.

The primary source to refer to is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives the legal position on where service animals (or more precisely defined, dogs) are allowed to be used. This Act also authorizes the Department of Justice to provide technical assistance to individuals and entities that have rights or responsibilities under the Act. 

However, it is useful to know that this Act is not the only defining document for service dogs or therapy dogs. The ADA website, under its FAQs, references public health rules, the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act (for the Department for Veterans Affairs), and the Air Carrier Access Act. 

Concerning public health rules, the ADA does not allow a service animal to be in a place that would risk others' health, like a restaurant kitchen or in a public swimming pool. Service dogs may go into a restaurant if their handler is eating there, but they shouldn't eat or sit at the table. Similarly, at a public pool, the dog must not enter the water but can be in the precinct. 

People with disabilities who require housing cannot be discriminated against under the Fair Housing Act. Still, they must be allowed to have their dog live with them in their home, even those maintained by government bodies. This includes dogs who are trained to emotionally support those with a disability. From this, it appears that therapy dogs may be included under this Act also.

Service dogs are not required to have any significant identification. However, many organizations arrange for their dogs to wear coats so that the public is aware that the dog is a service dog and is working. A dog's service is more recognizable in the community by its coat. Often without its coat, it reverts to not being in service, but resting, or playing for a little while - just being a dog, not a service dog. We know that feeling - when we get out of a uniform or work clothes. It's time to have a little rest.   

"Man's Best Friend"

In the end, a service dog or a therapy dog is doing to give friendship and support for someone who is not as able as others in some way. An animal doesn't judge a person for not being able to deal with crowds or having a seizure. Because of the friendship that develops between a dog and its handler, the dog gives service because of its love for the handler. The service it provides makes a huge difference to a person with a disability, and the friendship it gives can bring companionship to some who are, because of their disability, alone in this world. These dogs enable their handlers to have a complete life and be a part of the community. (This is why service dogs are also considered to be therapy dogs.)

A service dog takes the fear out of going out in public. It may look like just a dog to others, but for some, it is eyes or ears, finger-prick blood tests, or a security blanket in times of overcrowding.

We cannot underestimate the value of these specially trained animals in the lives of some and hope that the resources can be found to train more of these special animals who devote their lives to the service of others.