What Service Dog Really Means
By T.Christina Jacobs
There is a lot of information and misinformation out there about Service Dogs (SDs). Most people believe there is some sort of certification or license required for a dog to be a SD, many believe that SDs can only help people who are blind, many believe that dogs must be trained by an organization or program in order to be SDs, and many seem to think that SDs must be certain breeds in order to be legitimate. In reality, all of this is false. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), there is no nationally recognized license or certification required for SDs or their handlers, SDs can be trained to assist individuals with many different kinds of disabilities both physical and mental, individuals may train their own SDs and any breed (or mix breed) of dog can be a SD as long as the dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for his disabled handler.The ADA is written in that way in order to make it easier for individuals with disabilities to have access to SDs. Many people who need SDs may have financial troubles, which would make it hard to pay for a program trained dog (which can cost several thousand dollars out of pocket) or a licensing/certification fee. It is also more cost effective for some people to be able to use smaller breeds as SDs in order to save money on food and other expenses. The ADA specifically allows for owner trainers (OT) and doesn’t limit the breed(s) allowed to be SDs because the ADA is all about inclusion and allowing disabled individuals to have the best chance possible at a normal life.
Despite the ADA explicitly saying that an individual must be legally disabled in order to have a SD and the dog must be individually trained to do work and perform tasks in order to be a SD, there are people who take advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge about the ADA and fake SDs in order to gain access to public places with their (often untrained) pets. Despite this being illegal in most states, and morally wrong, it seems to be getting more common. “Fakers” (the term the SD community uses to describe individuals who don’t have a real need for a SD) can make life for people with legitimate SDs much more difficult. Businesses who have experienced poorly behaved dogs being passed off as SDs may be more hesitant to allow legitimate teams into their establishment, members of the public who were allowed to pet a dog being passed off as a SD may pet and distract a legitimate SD causing his disabled handler to become sick or injured, people may be frightened by a poorly behaved pet dog being passed off as a SD making them believe that all SDs are poorly behaved and something to be feared. For these reasons and more, faking a Service Dog is wrong and shouldn’t be done, no matter how well behaved a pet dog may be.
That said, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that an individual is a “faker” because the person doesn’t “look disabled” or the dog doesn’t “look like a Service Dog.” As noted earlier, dogs of all breeds and sizes can be SDs and they can be trained to help individuals with many different disabilities. Many are not aware that SDs can successfully be trained to assist people with psychiatric and emotional disabilities as well as physical ones. There have been SDs trained for PTSD, Anxiety Disorders, Panic Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Schizophrenia and many others. As long as there is a limitation that a dog can be trained to help with, there’s a way to train a SD to help any disabling condition! It really is amazing.
If it is not apparent that the dog is a SD by looking, there are two questions that a business owner/employee may legally ask. 1. Is that a Service Animal required because of a disability; and 2. What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform. One cannot ask for any proof of the person’s disability, the dog’s training or ask that the dog perform any of his tasks. There are countless different tasks that dogs can be trained to do to help disabled individuals. These tasks include picking up dropped items, retrieving medication, opening doors, pulling a wheelchair, interrupting compulsive behaviors, alerting to sounds, guiding a handler, and so much more. Providing comfort is no longer considered a valid task for a SD according to the ADA, though it can be a very helpful bonus. If you are not a business owner or employee, the handler is not required to answer any of your questions. If you are polite and friendly, she may be willing to talk with you, but may not have the time or capability to do so. Please understand that some disabled individuals with SDs may have a hard time communicating or may be anxious in social situations. If a SD handler does not wish to talk, please be respectful of her wishes. Also, please always ask before petting a SD and do not be offended if the handler declines. The dog is working and may not be able to properly do his job if he is distracted.
For more information about Service Dogs please visit ADA.gov or servicedogcentral.org For more information about the author and her Service Dog in Training, please visit Facebook.com/SaxontheStafford.