We all appreciate the partnership that has evolved between canines and humans. We marvel as dogs are being trained to perform duties that we never dreamed possible! In the past, we would primarily associate the notion of a service dog as a helper for the blind or deaf. Nowadays with dogs serving in so many capacities and our sensitivity toward those with disabilities, it seems that a cloudy interpretation has emerged.
What actually is a service dog? This is a hot topic these days due to the exploitation by people who claim their dog is a service animal, when in fact, they are simply a pet that the owner claims he or she has “rights” to take into public places. It is no wonder that trainers and organizations who truly provide exceptionally well trained dogs for those with disabilities are up in arms seeking legislation to prevent the apparent abuse.
Through the years we have received many phone calls from folks who want a service dog. About the time we are prepared to refer them to a foundation which provides dogs to the disabled, they reveal that “Oh no! we don’t want to buy a dog! We want to use our own dog!” One quickly surmises that the barking, untrained, mid-aged creature you hear in the background is the victim to be miraculously transformed.
Owners desire to make their household pet a service dog for a variety of reasons. When asked to describe their disability you hear everything from “I have nightmares” to “my dog comforts me when I’m stressed.” These things may be fact, but it probably doesn’t warrant your Pomeranian sitting in the grocery cart to assist you in your shopping.
Seeking the truth on this confusing topic, we as trainers, recently attended a seminar taught by Mary McNeight, the owner of Service Dog Academy in Seattle. Mary explained that in 2011 the Department of Justice revised the regulations for the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). In a nutshell, a person must have an impairment and the dog must be trained to perform a specific task related to the disability. If these two criteria are met, the dog is permitted to enter all places where members of the public are allowed to go. Dogs whose sole purpose is to provide emotional support do not qualify.
As for who is required to train the dog… there are no set rules. Naturally, if you are seeking a guide dog for the blind, you would want to go through a reputable school that carefully breeds, screens, and trains dogs to perfection. It is a matter of life and death for those that must use their dog as their eyes! The same would be true if you were deaf. Why not work with an organization who specializes in your specific needs??
For other disabilities, a good independent trainer may suffice. For example, this past year we did foundational training for a Labrador whose job was to carry oxygen for a small boy with breathing problems. We laid down all of the basics as we do with any dog. Then we made sure he would work for a child as he carried a vest with oxygen tanks.
We were recently contacted by a former client who is suffering from serious balance issues. Her doctor recommended a dog that would steady her and prevent a fall. Luckily, her own dog is a Great Dane! In his favor is the fact that he is quite young. The more difficult obstacle may be that both dog and owner must now realize that the dog is a working dog and not just a pet. And, he must prove to be suitable in temperament with a willingness to work. These projects are challenging yet so rewarding. Again, if the tasks needed are extremely intricate it would be best to look for someone who specializes in that particular type of training.
People are often confused about needed paperwork, certifications, and registration for service dogs. These documents may be a good thing, but you legally cannot be asked to produce them. However, you may be asked what specific job this dog was trained to do for you.
To summarize, if you require a service dog then take it upon yourself to choose wisely. If you are looking for a dog to execute particular unusual tasks, then seek out a foundation or organization in this field of expertise. If you are going it alone and looking for a dog to fill the need, then pay an expert to help you choose the correct type of dog and temperament. The odds of using the dog you already own could be a potential long shot depending on breed, history, etc. It could be like expecting a Chihuahua to bird hunt! However, wonders never cease and I’m excited to see if the Great Dane will fit the bill!!!