It is impressive what a dog can be trained to do when working with professional dog trainers, and how they can learn to perform tasks that no machine could. Dogs can sniff their way to cancer, sense an epileptic attack already before it happens, they can learn to be the eyes- and/or ears of someone who lacks the ability to see or hear themselves, and they can provide emotional support to those suffering from mental illnesses and instabilities.
There are different types of support animals, but a service dog is one that has earned its title after living up to the expectations of their training and certification. A service dog goes with the person they work for to places where regular pet dogs can’t, and it is important to know what they do and how to behave if you happen to meet one.
What a Service Dog Is
A service dog is a working animal that has gone through extensive training to perform one or several tasks, with the purpose of making life easier for an individual with a disability. Many have heard of service dogs aiding the visually impaired and the deaf- or hard-of-hearing, but there are also service dogs trained to help those on the autism spectrum, people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), diabetes, disorders that cause seizures (such as epilepsy) and those with limited mobility.
Service dogs can go where regular pets cannot, and they are allowed to accompany their human into restaurants, on airplanes, on public transportation, at the doctor’s office and more, and it is easy to get excited when you see a cute dog somewhere where you don’t usually see pets.
This might give you the urge to walk up and cuddle that adorable pup with the harness or vest, but it is important to keep a distance from any working dog, and especially service dogs. A service dog is not a regular pet, and they are trained to stay focused and to perform a potentially life-saving task.
Respect these dogs by not attempting to pet them or in any other way take their attention away from the person they are attending, so that they can properly carry out the tasks they’ve been trained for.
Who Can Get a Service Dog?
Not everyone has the right to service dogs, as service dogs are time-consuming- and expensive to train, and only those with a documented need are eligible for a furry helper.
The core of what might qualify you is that you need to have a disability – one documented by physicians and one that limits you in your everyday life; you should have been declared “legally disabled” (ADA), and your doctor needs to have signed off on an agreement that you do indeed need a service animal.
All these regulations are there to make sure that only those with a genuine need get one of these highly intelligent and carefully trained pups, as they are not a cute accessory, but a necessity for some people to be able to live a normal life.
To get a service dog, you also need to have the financial means to care for a dog, and a suitable home for a dog to live in with you. It is also relevant whether you can see to the dog’s basic needs yourself, or if you need somebody else (like a parent, a legal guardian or an assistant) to take on the main responsibility for the dog.
Anyone can apply for a service dog, but few of those applying end up getting one, and even if you are approved – it can take time before the day finally comes that the new dog moves in with you.
Examples of Tasks Performed by Service Dogs
What tasks a service dog is trained to perform depends on what its future owner needs for it to do, as different disabilities require different skills. An emotional support animal is not trained to do anything specific and does therefore not count as a service dog, but more on this later. Here are examples of what service dogs may have been taught to help with:
+ Identify when someone’s blood sugar is low
+ Sniff and control the air for allergens
+ Fetching drinks for owners that need to take pills or medications
+ Physically assisting a person with balance issues or difficulty walking
+ Help someone back on their feet after a fall
+ Opening a drawer or a closed-door
+ Letting someone know that the phone is ringing
+ Alerting to the sound of a fire alarm
+ Preventing someone with a seizure from hurting themselves
+ Fetching medications when the owner is unable to do so
+ Waking up the owner in the morning when it is time for work
+ Sense and alert when a migraine is coming
+ Switching on- and off the lights
These are only a few of the examples, as most service dogs are trained with their future owners in mind; their training is therefore adapted to the work they will be doing for that specific person, and no service dog is exactly the same as another.
Process for Getting a Service Dog
If you are approved as a suitable candidate for having a service dog, it is time to start thinking about what you would need that dog to do for you. This can be hard if you have no previous experience of service dogs, but it is a crucial step towards a more independent life.
Make a list of all the different tasks that you can’t do yourself; be honest and as specific as possible, as this will eventually help the service dog agency choose the right dog for you and to train it the way you need it to be trained.
How long it takes to get a dog once approved depends on your needs, how urgent it is, whether you will be assigned a pre-trained dog or if a dog of your choice will be trained for you and a few other factors, so there is no way to know for sure what the process will look, as it looks different for everyone.
Getting Your Own Dog Certified
Some agencies will allow you to pick out a dog yourself, have it tested to see if it would be suitable as a service dog and, if yes, have it trained by a professional trainer, but this is usually the case for dogs that perform few- or somewhat simple tasks (like fetching items and switching on- and off lights).
Seeing-eye dogs and other high-performance service dogs are usually handpicked as puppies and extensively trained for the first year or two before they move in with the person needing help.
Any breed can technically become a service dog, as the ADA currently does not have any breed restrictions. Certain breeds might, however, be more suitable for specific tasks, as some tasks may require a dog of a certain size. This applies to dogs aiding with balance and other physical tasks, but small dogs are usually excellent for helping the hearing impaired or for alerting to medical emergencies.
Before a dog will even be considered as a candidate for a service dog certification, it needs to master basic obedience, pass a Canine Good Citizen test, a Public Access test and have a suitable mentality. They usually need to be over 6 months old, be spayed or neutered to eliminate any breeding related behaviors, be of excellent health to not waste the training on a dog that won’t last, and they need to pass several personality tests.
This can vary depending on the type of service dog you need it to become, and a certified trainer can give you all the details. By international standards, the dog should receive a total of 120 hours of training over the period of 6-24 months.
The Public Access Test
This test exists to prove that a dog is suitable to work alongside their human in crowded areas, in places like restaurants or on a flight, they need to show that they do not get stressed or anxious in unknown environments and more.
When taking this test, they will only pass if they show no signs of aggression (such as barking, growling, lunging at other dogs and biting), if they can refrain from begging for food or attention, if they can control their own excitement and sniffing behaviors, and if they master doing their needs only on command.
It is a difficult test that most regular pet dogs wouldn’t pass, and it requires a lot of the dog to make sure it has what it takes to become a service animal. It is a good idea to videotape (film either with a cellphone camera or another device) this test so that you can prove your dog passed it, in case of legal issues or similar further down the line. Have a friend come with you to document your dog’s achievements throughout the process of certification.
Different Types of Service Dogs
As discussed earlier in this article, there are several different types of service dogs – all trained to perform their own specific tasks, and these are some of the service dogs you might come across:
+ Allergy Detection Service Dogs
+ Autism Support Service Dogs
+ Guide Dogs for the Visually Impaired
+ Hearing Dogs
+ Seizure Response Service Dogs
+ Mobility Assistance Service Dogs
+ Physical Assistance Service Dogs
All these are known as service dogs, and they may or may not carry information about their owner in- or on their vests. All service dogs should wear something that indicates to the public their status as a working dog, and if spotted – they should be left alone to focus on their work tasks.
Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal
An emotional support animal is not the same as a service dog, as these do not require any type of formal training. Emotional support animals are often used by people with anxiety and mental disorders, and they can sometimes be allowed to go into public areas like restaurants.
It is, however, important to understand that it is a lot easier for someone to get an emotional support animal than it is for someone to be granted a trained service dog, and this is why service dogs have a lot more rights (to stay by their owner’s side at all times) than an emotional support dog.
It has become popular in recent years to get regular pet dogs certified as emotional support animals, often with the goal of taking them on planes without charge and without having to fly the dogs in cargo.
This is a bigger problem than what many might realize, as these dogs are not trained or tested for good behavior in public; leading to an increasingly bad reputation for working service dogs, due to some mistakenly believing emotional support animals to be the same as licensed service dogs.
It is important to respect rules and regulations for emotional support animals and to not try and cheat if you don’t really need one, as this affects those who do need an emotional support animal, and also those who need genuine service dogs.
Service Dog Laws
Under Federal Law, it is currently prohibited for anyone to require a service dog owner to show documentation for their dog is a legit service dog, and it is optional for these owners to have their dog wear a vest or harness indicating their working dog status. Most do however choose to do this, for safety reasons and to avoid having to explain themselves frequently, but it is not a requirement.
The only time an establishment can ask a service dog to be removed is if the dog misbehaves or presents a direct threat and is therefore essential to properly train and certify a service dog. It is considered a crime to pass a dog off as a service dog if the dog has not received proper training,