With around 200,000 service dogs in the United States trained to help and do specific tasks, people with disabilities across the country are able to lead more normal lives. From guiding and picking up things for the blind to stopping panic attacks in PTSD patients, these canines show that dogs are not only man’s best friend, they can be invaluable partners as well.
If you wish to know how to make your dog a service dog and improve your quality of living, this guide will take you through the important things you need to consider.
Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
It is important to fully understand the ADA first before proceeding as it clearly outlines the definition of a service dog and the regulations of having one. By knowing the pertinent laws, you will avoid problems such as wasting your effort or money or accidentally engaging with fraudulent businesses.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is defined as such:
“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.
Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.”
Service dogs are allowed to accompany people with disability to wherever the public is normally allowed to go. This includes businesses and organizations that usually don’t allow pets inside.
Service dogs are also allowed in housing establishments with a no pet policy and aboard airplanes. It is mandated that the dogs be tethered, leashed or harnessed. If these restrictions prevent them from doing their work however, they must be controlled through hand signals, voice commands or other effective devices. If the dog becomes out of control and the owner does nothing, the dog may be removed from the premises.
Some individuals try to pass off their pets as service dogs just so they can circumvent the “no pets” policies in certain neighborhoods or avoid paying hefty carrier fees for animals. Doing this is considered a crime under the ADA and is punishable by law. Businesses can also file charges against owners of fake service dogs if the animals caused damage and loss of customers.
To read the full regulation about service dogs, please visit the ADA government website.
Who is eligible to have a service dog?
Someone is entitled to a service dog if he or she is suffering from any physical or mental disability that hinders major life activities. Such disabilities include:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Life-threatening allergies
- Other psychiatric disabilities
Canines that function as crime deterrents for their owners are not considered service dogs. Note as well that service dogs are different from therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. Service dogs are required to undergo rigorous training in order to successfully complete certain tasks for people with disabilities.
Therapy and emotional support dogs, on the other hand, are not required to perform specific tasks; they only need to be there to provide comfort, emotional stability or unconditional love. A doctor’s note is also often required to have an emotional support dog. Keep in mind that only service dogs are covered by the ADA.
Is a certification or registration required to prove that your dog is indeed a service dog?
Since not all disabilities are readily apparent and since many businesses across the country already have bad experiences with customers and their unruly pets, it can be difficult in some cases to have a service dog with you. So you ask yourself, “how do I register my dog as a service dog so I have proof?”Or maybe, “is there a certification I can get to make things easier?”
The plain and simple answer is: there is no nationally recognized certification for service dogs because certification is not required by the law.
Some facilities who train service dogs may provide certifications as proof that the canine has completed his training, but that is it. Some facilities don’t even give out certifications. Beware of establishments that tout their certificates as must-haves because they are just giving you a run for your money. Some places even offer ‘required IDs’ or ‘renewable certifications’ wherein you have to pay yearly or the certificates will expire and cannot be used. These are illegal activities and must be avoided and reported.
Under the ADA, you are allowed to take your service dog with you wherever the general public is given access, as long as your dog is well behaved. Businesses (restaurants, cafes, department stores, etc.) are to allow both of you inside their premises. If they are not quite sure if your dog is indeed a service animal, they are only allowed to ask these two questions as specified by the ADA:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff of any establishments serving the public are not allowed to inquire specifically about the handler’s disability and they are most certainly not required to ask you of any certifications, IDs and other documents for proof purposes. They are also not allowed to ask for a demonstration of what the dog can do for you. However, if you get into a situation where you need to go to court and prove that your dog was sufficiently trained, a certification from the training facility will come in handy.
It is also worth reiterating that as mentioned above, service dogs need to be leashed, tethered or harnessed unless these control devices interfere with the tasks they need to do or the handler’s disabilities make it impossible to make use of these devices. So that means that businesses are not to force anyone to leash their service dogs.
The American Disabilities Act does consider the side of businesses and has outlined certain provisions to protect commercial establishments. This is more than understandable because there are already many cases of people bringing in fake service dogs or poorly trained ones. There have been reports of these canines barking at other customers, defecating and peeing inside business establishments, or attacking other service dogs in the vicinity.
In the case of service dogs misbehaving, business owners and their employees are allowed to have the dogs removed from the premises. They can also file charges for any damage caused.
So the answer to your question “how do I make my dog a service dog?” is this: make sure he undergoes rigorous and effective training.
What training is required for service dogs?
Service dogs need to adhere to high training and behavioral standards in order to successfully help their handlers deal with a disability. Also, they need to be trained very well for them not to become harmful to others in society. Pets passed off as service dogs or poorly trained canines will often cause difficulties because they are not ready for the stressors they will likely encounter when forced to stay in public.
After all, crowded areas often have children who might pull at dogs’ ears or people accidentally trudging on their tails. The pain and surprise might lead poorly trained dogs to growl and lash out, causing panic and accidents. Any dog that injures or bites people will most likely be euthanized and charges may be filed against the handler.
There are various facilities in the US that offer training for service dogs and it is the responsibility of the individual to make the right choice. Here are most of the basic trainings you should expect:
- Obedience. Service dogs need to be well behaved and should follow the commands of their owners. They need to be trained in obeying verbal commands and/or hand signals, especially if it is determined beforehand that leashing or harnessing them while in public is not ideal due to the handler’s impairment. Example of commands they need to thoroughly respond to include: stay, down, heel, sit, and come.
- Disability-related tasks. As mentioned above and quoted from the ADA, examples of the work service dogs need to do include picking up things, leading, pushing wheel chairs, alerting his handler to potential allergens, protecting a person when having a seizure, calming a patient when having PSTD panic attacks, and more. Trainers will determine first the range of assistance a handler requires and will make sure the dog can perform his tasks perfectly whenever needed.
- Manners. A service dog should not exhibit certain behaviors in social situations that might lead to the harm of anybody. With this training, he will learn not to show aggressive behavior towards unsuspecting strangers. A service dog should also not beg for food or sniff at other people’s belongings. If given food by anyone in the crowd, he must learn to ignore it. Most important, he will be trained to acclimatize to crowded surroundings in order not to get stressed easily.
Length of training is expected to be around 120 hours in total and is often carried out in several sessions over a period of 6 months. Training facilities will graduate the dogs after they’ve passed several tests, which vary in scope and execution from facility to facility. The most common test however requires a dog to go with his handler in public. The team will be tested if they are ready to navigate social environments without any problems and without full trainer supervision.
What are your responsibilities as a handler?
Since service dogs are considered partners for disabled individuals, the person who will be getting a service dog needs to receive training as well. It needs to be stressed that full control must be exercised over the canine. Any laxity might lead to problems later on.
Therefore, if you want to successfully have a service dog, think of yourself as part of a team. Learn the commands by heart and enforce them properly. Of course this does not mean that you resort to inhumane training and handling. Be observant when it comes to your dog’s stress levels and be sure to provide him adequate breaks.
Do not neglect your grooming responsibilities as well. Make sure your dog is clean and free from any foul odor. Keep his vaccinations up to date and make sure he is not flea-infested, especially if you are taking him to places frequented by other pets. Be responsible and show consideration to others wherever you go. This means that you need to always carry with you clean up materials just in case your dog eliminates in public or gets sick.
Additionally, be polite and accept the fact that there are many people who are wary of dogs. Some are allergic to canines and some may even have traumatic experiences that automatically elicit a reaction of fear. In these cases, be civil and be willing enough to educate the people around you how service dogs are different from normal pets and how your partner is very helpful to you.
All in all, service dogs are a boon to people with disabilities. Their training and care need to be approached seriously however to avoid any issues. Hopefully your questions have been addressed by this guide. Also, please do not illegally pass off any pet as a service dog as this will most likely cause harm to you, to your pet and to other people around you.
Lastly, be wary of establishments that are very pushy about certifications and IDs. Most training facilities will provide certifications after the dogs have completed their training, but these documents should not be marketed as something that is absolutely necessary that you need to spend a separate amount for.