A service dog is a type of assistance dog that provides a distinct service to it’s owner for a disability whether it is a visual or hearing impairment, medical condition such as diabetes, seizures or mental health (such as PTSD, autism, dementia). Service dog candidates must have good temperament, health, be loyal, affectionate, devoted, keen, alert, eager to learn and eager to please their owners. Obviously, not all dogs can become service dogs. Most organizations use Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and their crosses; while small to medium size terriers are often used for medical alert problems.

Military and Police dogs are important officers!

History of Service Dogs

There are stories throughout history of dogs helping the military and coming to the aid of lost skiers in the Alps (is everyone picturing the St Bernard with the keg around its neck?). During World War II, the Germans relied on ambulance and messenger dogs to help soldiers. It has been reported that in 1916, a German doctor opened the first guide dog school and similar schools started in the United States during World War II. Soon, dogs were being used by the deaf to help them lead normal lives and soon other schools and organizations were started to help other areas such as dogs that can detect diabetes irregularities and oncoming seizures. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was long overdue to help protect the rights of any citizen with a disability. This act has four sections pertaining to our rights and abilities to use service dogs:

  • Employment
  • State and local government transportation and public service
  • Public accommodations
  • Telecommunications

More or additional information on these areas can be found at www.dol.gov. Know your rights under the law!

Abilities of Service Dogs

Common tasks for service dogs are turning on light switches, picking up objects, avoiding obstacles, alerting to noises (telephones ringing or alarms) and assisting with repetitive behaviors (Obscessive-compulsive disorders, autism, ADHD). A true service dog is defined as one trained to perform certain tasks or work directly related to their owner’s disability. This is important for so many to be able to lead normal productive lives.

While emotional support very often occurs with these service dogs, the current “emotional support animal” (ESA) is not always considered a true service dog by definition. Therefore, not all ESAs are covered under the ADA as some do not perform specific tasks. ESAs may be of any species and must be supported by a letter or prescription from a qualified physician, psychiatrist or other mental health professional concerning their role as an ESA. Other government agencies can be involved in such situations and other acts such as the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) come into play. The ACAA permits dogs and other service animals access to commercial airlines as long as they do not disrupt normal operations and the FHA permits service animals including comfort and ESAs without species restriction into housing.

A therapy animal is one involved in animal assisted treatments either individual or group settings. Examples of these include autistic and ADHD children visiting horse stables for therapy and other animals that visit hospitals and nursing homes. These are very beneficial for all involved. I worked in a nursing home during college and the patients were very excited when the local cat or dog therapy animal visited! They did so much better for several days and always asked when they were coming back!

Training of Service Dogs

Service dogs often determine on their own merit or abilities who they are best able to help. Their temperament and genetics often dictate the problems for which they are more capable of performing and can be further trained for. They then undergo months of training to make sure they will be of benefit to the person they are paired with and are safe in public areas. I have some clients who have “trained” or I believe have benefited from their dog’s natural abilities to detect extreme blood sugar levels (by smell, I believe) and oncoming seizure activity (not sure how this is detected!). There are many organizations across the country (many non-profit) that provide service dogs to those in need. I found references that indicate that most insurance companies do not cover the cost of these service animals and I do believe this should be addressed as I am aware that not everyone can be serviced by the non-profit agencies and am told a diabetes trained dog can cost upwards of $15,000.00! Many people simply cannot afford this.

Legal Concerns

Service animals are allowed in public areas as long as they “do not fundamentally alter the nature of the business and do not pose an immediate threat to the public and are house-trained.”   Access cannot be denied due to another person’s allergies or fears and accommodations should be made available for both parties concerned. These may sound like simple rules but may be difficult in certain instances such as airplanes, buses and subways and I feel that anyone with allergies needs to be made aware of any animals in close quarters on any public transportation (I know of several people who react violently when in close quarters with certain animals and may need inhalers to be able to breath!)

Different states may have their own definitions as for service animals and who is allowed in public places. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), an updated list is available on Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical center website.

My one concern in researching this issue is that there are some online agencies that will sell you vests and certificates which really are not official and may only be interested in making money! I do feel that we need some type of federal and/or state regulations concerning service, ESAs and therapy animals such as certain vest colors to denote what type of service these animals are trained for so that everyone knows when they encounter one in public that it has been trained or what type of service it performs.