A Service Dog: Assisting Individuals With Disabilities

A Service Dog: Assisting Individuals With Disabilities

Key Points

  • A service dog performs a task to assist those with disabilities.

  • Federal law affords rights to an individual with a disability who has a service dog.

  • Dogs are proven to help with anxiety and depression.

You have no doubt seen dogs performing duties alongside police officers and firefighters. Animals perform these important duties of public service every day, but they are also able to assist individual owners. A dog is very loyal, talented, and intelligent. For these reasons, they are the perfect candidate to complete tasks for individuals with disabilities. This animal, known as a service dog, assists in the daily functions of a great many humans in their everyday lives.

A service dog is much more than a pet; they have jobs that they perform with a surprisingly high degree of efficiency. These dogs are integral to their owners’ ability to interact with the world around them. They provide help ranging from physical assistance to mental and emotional comfort and stability.

Keep reading to find out what exactly these animals do and how they may be able to assist you.

What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog, in the most basic sense, is a canine that performs a service. For legal reasons, there must be more specificity.

The U.S. Department of Justice, through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), defines “service animals” as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

Even with this definition, there is a lot of room for interpretation. The term disabilities covers a wide array of illnesses and disorders. The ADA uses one of three criteria to determine whether a person has a disability. They are a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

  • has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission)

  • is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person with scars from a severe burn).

A person who has one or more of these limitations has the right to use a service dog and should not be subject to any discrimination or refused service based on their disability or the fact that they are accompanied by their service dog.

A service dog embraces the cheek of a person in military fatigues

Service Dogs in Public

Any business, local, or government facility, that serves the public must allow a service dog to accompany a person with a disability. A service dog is also allowed to stay with their owner in any hotel room that is available to any person without a disability as well.

There are certain obvious restrictions like operating rooms where an animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment or a restaurant’s kitchen because of sanitary reasons and health codes.

The other restriction that a service dog must adhere to is that they must be controlled by their owner by a harness, leash, or tether. The only exception to this is if these devices hinder the person’s disability or if the animal’s duties cannot be performed because of these devices. In those cases, the dog must be controlled by the handler’s commands or signals.

The ADA does not require employers to automatically allow service animals to come to work with their owners. Employers must make reasonable accommodations for a person with a disability, so they have the option of offering a substitution for the service dog if the company has a no-animals rule in place.

This is a delicate situation when the dog’s duty is in connection with a medical alert issue. It is best to have these discussions with your employer before bringing the dog to work. It is a difficult conversation to have without disclosing personal medical information, but hopefully, the employer is understanding regarding the limitations and needs of their employees with disabilities.

Documentation is not required for a person with a disability to enter a facility with their service dog. Workers at a business or state/local government facility may ask only two questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Business owners and workers are not allowed to ask what the disability is, ask for documentation that the dog is certified, licensed, or registered as a service animal, or ask that the dog proves that it can perform its duties as a service animal.

If you have a disability and feel that you are the victim of any form of discrimination, go to ada.gov to file a complaint.

Examples of Service Dogs

There are many different services that a dog potentially provides to their owner with a disability. Whether the need is physical, mental, or emotional, a service dog is a solution you need to fill the gap between you and the aspects of your environment that have thus far been inaccessible or are more difficult to navigate.

Here are some of the different types of service dogs:

  • Guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals by leading and helping them navigate their environment.

  • Medical alert dogs bark or lick their owner’s hand to remind them to take medication, alert their owners to the presence of allergens, or when the onset of a seizure is imminent.

  • Mobility dogs assist individuals in a wheelchair, with a walking device, or those who have balance issues.

  • Psychiatric service dogs work to calm a person suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack, entering the room and turning on the light to prevent stress-inducing triggers, or interrupting repetitive behaviors for someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

If you have any of these disabilities, a service dog is a way to make these symptoms more manageable. In many situations, a service dog performs a physical task, but in cases of anxiety and depression, a dog’s mere presence is enough to combat these issues.

A service dog on lead next to their owner

Service Dog for Anxiety or Depression

Owning a dog is associated with a lot of fun, but does it actually have a significant positive impact on someone with deep-seated roots of anxiety or depression? Research shows that it does.

In a study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers Allen McConnell, et al. stated “the ability of pets to stave off negativity caused by social rejection. In summary, pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.”

This is good news for an individual suffering from depression. When depression limits social interaction and self-esteem, the presence of a dog instigates more social contact and takes the edge off. 

Depression causes a person to feel apathetic and like there is no reason to go out and enjoy the outdoors or social settings like parks. Owning a dog gives the owner a reason to leave the house to take their dog on walks and to a dog park. Having a pet also gives a person a reason -- sometimes their only one -- for getting from one day to the next. Taking care of a dog gives them a purpose for their lives that they may not have otherwise.

Does a dog cure depression? Perhaps not, but they make the illness more manageable. A dog matched with an individual’s personality is even more apt to have a positive impact on the owner’s overall mood and outlook on the world around them.

For your dog to be considered a service dog for anxiety or depression, you must obtain an official letter from a licensed psychologist or therapist. If a licensed behavioral/mental health professional believes that a service dog would provide calmness during times of anxiety or boost your mood during bouts of depression, they often recommend a service dog and write a letter for you to get one from a legitimate provider. Your therapist probably even has a list of resources to direct you to a reliable source.

If you want your dog to calm you in times of stress, they must have a calm demeanor as well. Dogs and their owners easily transfer emotions from one to the other. With this in mind, it is important to provide objects and activities that keep your dog stress-free.

When you are planning on engaging in an activity that may cause your dog stress, prepare for this possibility. Giving them a Calming Zen Chew puts them in a more relaxed state so they are not easily triggered by loud noises or stressed out by a crowd of strangers.

When you have a service dog, they are with you virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So much time spent together creates a strong attachment. There are times, however, when you must be apart for a variety of reasons. That time apart could initiate separation anxiety. 

To deter that possibility, leave toys and puzzles for your dog to remain occupied for at least part of the time you are gone. A service dog is used to having a job to do. They feel anxious when they are not able to perform that job. Leaving a puzzle toy or object containing a treat fills that need to be useful and creates for them a task to be completed.

Separation anxiety sometimes occurs at night as well. Even though you may be in the same room as your dog, they still feel somewhat separated from you when they are in their separate bed. A calming dog bed lessens this feeling of distance. 

The bed is made to wrap around and comfort your dog making them feel more secure. The soft faux fur and bolstered sides hug the dog and imitate affection from the owner.

In the case of depression, you want a dog that boosts your mood. A dog that is happy and excited to see you is better than one that is possibly older and more subdued. Finding the right dog and the right fit between animal and human depends on the personality of each.

A chaotic and blurry scene of owner and service dog walking through crowd

Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs

If you have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) without the diagnosis of a disability, you still think of them as filling a very important role in your life.

When it comes to the law, ESAs, therapy dogs, and companion animals are not considered service animals because they do not perform a specific job or task in connection with a disability. Simply providing comfort to an individual is not enough to qualify them as a service dog.

ESAs do have certain privileges by Federal law when it comes to housing where there is a no pets restriction under the Fair Housing Act. They are protected from being charged a pet deposit or additional fees.

Therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to individuals in hospitals, schools, and other institutions, but they are not afforded the same rights or access as service dogs.

Does a Service Dog Have To Be Professionally Trained?

According to the ADA, an owner may pay for professional training or choose to train the dog themselves. If you or someone else trains your dog to perform a specific task to assist you with a disability, then you have a service dog. 

A dog that is still in training is not considered a service dog. They must be fully trained, able to perform the required task or tasks associated with the disability and be controlled by their handler.

A dog is not required to wear a vest or other identification identifying them as a service dog. It is still a good idea to fit them with a vest that indicates they are a service dog, though, when they are in training in public environments. This lessens the number of people that come up and try to pet or play with them which disrupts the training process.

A service dog sits near their owner

Do Certain Breeds Make Better Service Dogs?

The appropriate breed and size of a service dog depend on the tasks that are needed for them to perform. Obviously, a Yorkshire terrier is not a good choice to pull a wheelchair but is a great choice to be trained as a seizure-alert dog.

The ADA does not have restrictions on the breed of dogs that are allowed to be used as service animals. Some breeds tend to do better at performing particular tasks. 

The American Kennel Club (AKC) points out that “Breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Bernese Mountain Dogs possess the height and strength to provide mobility assistance, while Poodles, which come in Toy, Miniature, and Standard varieties, are particularly versatile.  A Toy Poodle puppy can begin early scent training games in preparation for the work of alerting on blood sugar variations, while a larger Standard Poodle puppy may learn to activate light switches and carry objects.”

Poodles are also friendly, loyal, intelligent, obedient, and considered great family pets, so they would be one good choice for a child on the autism spectrum, for instance. They don’t typically make a lot of noise but are able to be trained for bark alerts for medical needs. 

Labradors have qualities that put them at the top of the list of best service dogs. They are easy-going, friendly, intelligent, and eager to please their owners. Labs, golden retrievers, and German shepherds are most often chosen as guide dogs.

A dog used as an anti-anxiety service dog needs to have similar qualities. They should be calm, friendly, not easily frightened by other dogs or humans, loyal, not easily excitable, and not prone to barking a lot which may cause stress in their owners.

A rescue dog with unknown history, no matter what breed, is not the ideal candidate for a service dog. If the dog shows signs of anxiety or behavioral issues, these are difficult to overcome. Trauma from the dog’s past often is a critical distraction and causes unknown triggers.

It is not impossible to get past these issues, but it makes their training and dependability less stable. If you are choosing an animal to help with issues related to anxiety, you do not want a dog that is likely to be triggered by an unknown source and have a recurrence of previous stress-related symptoms.

A service dog walks alongside a blind individual

Where Do You Get Service Dog?

Pay to have a dog trained as a service dog, but some training programs cost as much as $25,000 and take two years to complete. Check with your medical insurance provider to see how much, if any, of this cost is covered.

Some organizations provide lists of places where service dogs are acquired. Assistance Dogs International is one such organization. Go to their website and search by country and state. The location finder provides you with organizations in your area that assist with providing service or assistance dogs. 

If you are a military veteran, go to the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans. They provide a list of non-profit organizations that do not charge for services. These organizations are located in 13 different states, so take a look at the list to find the one closest to you.

If you decide to search on your own for organizations or individuals that provide trained service dogs, be cautious. Since there are laws prohibiting businesses from asking specifically about service dogs, there are a lot of people who abuse these laws and fraudulently pass off their dogs as service dogs.

Do your research before choosing a provider for a service animal. Look at reviews, Better Business Bureau ratings, accreditation, and supporters or affiliations of the company. Ask your veterinarian if they have a list of dog trainers or providers in your area.

Do Service Dogs Need to Be Registered?

Some organizations provide registration and certifications for service animals, but none are recognized by the ADA. You are also not required to produce any type of certification for your service dog to enter any establishment, so paying for such documentation is a waste of money for the most part.

If you prefer to have your dog registered as a service animal, there are online resources that offer registration for free. There are also voluntary registry services provided by some schools and institutions. This is helpful as a public resource in the case of an emergency, so personnel knows to look for the animal if they and their owner are separated.

Flying With Your Service Dog or ESA

A service dog can accompany a person with a disability on a commercial flight free of charge and sit on the floor in front of their seat. They may not extend into the aisle or the leg space of other passengers.

When it comes to an ESA or therapy dog, the same rules for pets apply to them as well. As mentioned earlier, they are not recognized as service animals and receive no special treatment not given to regular pets. They are considered carry-on if they are small enough that they don’t exceed the maximum requirements. 

At the beginning of 2023, United Airlines charges $125 each way for traveling with your pet or ESA and they must be kept in a small, hard-sided, or soft-sided carrier that fits under the seat or in front of you. 

When traveling on an airline with any animal, always contact the airline to find out their specific requirements for documentation and accommodations. Traveling internationally opens a different set of laws and regulations, so concessions for those with a disability in the U.S. may not be offered in other countries.

Always do your research when traveling anywhere and make yourself aware of any applicable laws.

A Service Dog vest

Thank You for Your Service

A service dog fulfills an important need in the life of a person with a disability.

The environment you live in is not always easy or accommodating when it comes to certain impairments or limitations. A service dog fills in the gap between you and what you need to achieve to live a full and content life.

If you, or someone you love, needs a service dog, you now have the knowledge and resources necessary to find the right animal to help you with daily tasks. A service dog not only provides you with a helper but a constant companion as well.

Take advantage of the benefit these versatile animals offer and thank them for their service and companionship.

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