By Ellen Driscoll
When an animal joins your life, you receive health benefits, both physical and mental, that are far beyond what most people expect. Pet ownership has proven to have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate changes, to name a few. Add all of that to the companionship, loyalty, and love they give us, and is it any wonder that 68% of U.S. households have at least one furry family member?
For people living with a chronic illness, a pet specially trained as a service animal brings another priceless asset...independence.
When most people think of service animals, a dog is what comes to mind, and with good reason. Dogs are the most often used species trained to be of service for disabled people. Cats, dolphins, miniature horses, monkeys, ducks, parrots, and ferrets have all been trained to perform specific tasks as “service” to the disabled. However, the legal title of “service animal” is given to different species dependent on state requirements. (1)
The ADA (the Americans with Disability Act) defines a Service Animal as a dog (2) “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.” The tasks can be a variety of things that help a person manage their day to day lives as long as it is directly related to the person’s disability.
The ADA protects the rights the disabled person has regarding housing, workplace, and other public places where a person may want and need to be accompanied by their dog. Most states have specific rules regarding inclusion and exclusion of animals, and each state’s Attorney General’s office can provide the specifics for that state.
Not all service animals do the same things. Besides guide dogs and hearing aid dogs, there are dogs trained for Mobility Assistance and Medical Emergency Response. Service Dogs can be trained to offer both types of assistance. There are emotional support animals that provide life-changing service for their owners also. While this category of animal is not recognized as a service animal by the ADA, most states will grant qualified, well-trained emotional support animals the same access to public spaces that an ADA dog has. There is a great site from the UK about the difference between emotional support animals and Service Dogs. The site, called “Dog Owner” is a wealth of information about the benefits of dog ownership for mental and physical health - https://www.dogowner.co.uk/dogs-mental-health/
A dog trained as a mobility assistance animal may provide help such as retrieving items from the floor, giving medication reminders, pushing elevator buttons, and many other helpful tasks. Medical emergency response animals frequently referred to as “seizure alert dogs” are trained to pick up changes in their owner’s bodies or behavioral cues that can warn that an emergency is about to take place, giving the owner a chance to react safely. This type of training has been critical for POTS and dysautonomia patients. If trained well, the dog can sense pre-syncope and give an alert signal, providing the owner time to move themselves to a safe space. They will also remain at attention by their owner’s side until the person is revived and can give the “okay” signal to the dog. Anyone who has been alone and incapacitated in a public place knows the potential dangers and the difference a service animal makes in that situation.
Two of the most common breeds trained for this invaluable profession are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. (3) These breeds are smart, loyal, and known for their patience, all qualities needed for this work. However, It is vital for people to understand and accept the difference between owning a service animal and a pet. There is a good reason that the jackets that these dogs wear in public ask people not to pet or interact with them. Unlike owning a pet that you would encourage to be people friendly, a service animal needs to be focused on the disabled person solely. The distractions inherent in public places can make it difficult enough for the animal. If people are petting and playing with the dog, they could easily miss the subtle cues necessary for them to do their job effectively; to provide the service they are trained to do, the dog needs to be attached to the person they are assisting. So regardless of what method you elect to use, there is always some training needed between the disabled person and the animal.
Types of Training
There are many ways to bring a service dog into your life.
- Buy an accredited Service Dog
- Bring your dog to a professional company for training.
- Train the dog yourself.
Service dog training is a very long process and can be very expensive. For a dog to become accredited, the animal must be able to respond to commands and be proficient in specific skills. They also must be able to pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test.
Buying an accredited Service Dog
Assistance Dogs International is an organization that establishes the standards for the Service Dog industry. ADI provides links to accredited companies that meet these standards. You can search for a company on their website - https://assistancedogsinternational.org/members/programs-search/
Buying a service dog is not as easy as just picking one out. The application process is a long one with the initial inquiry form taking 6 - 8 weeks to be reviewed. If the preliminary form is approved, then the actual application is sent out. Once received, it takes another 6 - 8 weeks for a medical review board to process the application. At that point, the person wanting a dog is either approved or disapproved. If you pass to this point, the process goes forward. The average cost for a Service Dog is $25,000. Many companies will work with approved applicants on fundraising and cost options if there is financial hardship. Most programs require the disabled person to stay at the company’s training facility for three weeks to a month to train the dog and the owner and to prepare them for the public access testing. Most programs include periodic training, evaluation, and recertifications as needed.
Training Your Own Service Dog
Some companies provide training for disabled people who have a dog that they believe would make an excellent Service Dog. However, the personality of a great pet is not necessarily the same as a great Service Dog. The American Kennel Club offers the following list of qualities that make a dog a good candidate for service:
- Calm but friendly
- Alert but not reactive
- Able to be touched by anyone, including strangers
- Willingness to please
- The natural tendency to follow you around
- Socialized to many different situations and environments
- Ability to learn quickly and retain information
Many companies that offer training will also evaluate your dog to see if he or she is a good fit. They may also help you find a dog that they believe will offer the best chance for success.
The upfront cost of a professional program is much less than buying an already accredited dog, averaging $5,000 to $10,000. However, there is not a guarantee that the dog will pass the accreditation test the first time. Also, this upfront fee doesn’t include ongoing training or recertification in most cases. Those fees are usually in addition to the upfront costs. It is important to talk to the company or the ADI to find out about any ongoing costs required to maintain accreditation.
Most professional training programs require about six months to complete all courses and prepare for the access test. Many organizations will offer training classes where professional trainers work in small groups providing the guidance needed for the owner to work at home with the dog to develop those skills. They also will offer private training that involves one-on-one instruction between the owner and the dog.
There has been a recent trend toward owners taking on training without hiring a professional. There are many resources online and blogs by people who have trained their animals. On the site, “The New Mobility,” Holly Koester (4) describes the process of teaching her black lab basic obedience and additional commands before seeking the specific training her dog would need for accreditation. Koester clicker trained her dog to be proficient with “sit,” “lay down,” “stay,” as well as other basic commands. After she had full confidence in that stage of learning, she moved on to teach commands like “pull” and “push,” giving her dog the headstart toward learning the skills to offer assistance in things like opening a door or closing a drawer. Koester estimates this approach shortened the amount of time her dog Spokes needed for professional assistance training down to three months.
No matter what the approach, training a service animal begins with teaching the owner. For people who don’t feel equipped to handle the basic obedience pre-training, there are companies like Top Dog located in AZ, (5) and The Dog Alliance in TX, (6) for example, that offer in-person and online classes for owners. Top Dog’s introductory class pairs owners with volunteer training assistants, and guides the owner through teaching the dog the basics and also how to understand the dog and how they communicate with you. The program goes on to the Intermediate, which begins the specific course work for assistance skills. Eventually, the owner and the dog are ready for the Assistance Dog Exam. Although the program is considerably less costly (the intro course is $200), it may not save you any time. Top Dog estimates a year and a half of training until the exam and much longer if a dog or owner doesn’t catch on to commands the first time around.
The Dog Alliance provides accredited dogs as well as owner training classes. The introductory course requires an owner to take a preliminary seminar on basic obedience training and that their dog either pass that class or has instructor approval to move on to the Service Dog training class. The advanced class focuses on assistance skills and preparation for the Assistance Test.
There are also training manuals and online training available to owners who have prior experience with basic command training or have owned a Service Dog before. Regardless of the path taken to get there, the goal should be to have a well-trained animal capable of passing the Assistance Test for Service Animals. Without this credential, there is always a safety risk in using an animal for mobility assistance.
A Final Word
Regardless of the type of training you decide to use, always check for the certification of the program and professionals you choose by researching the company through the Assistance Dogs International site - https://assistancedogsinternational.org/ This organization sets the standards for assistance animals, and trainers, as well as providing the official test for dogs to be accredited Service Dogs.
It is critical to understand that even though it is costly and time-consuming to go through all the hoops necessary to have an accredited Service Dog, it is dangerous and irresponsible not to. To protect the rites of the disabled population, restaurants and other public places are not allowed to question whether an animal is accredited or not, or why they are needed. Also, there are service dog vests that can be bought online without proof that the buyer is disabled or the dog is accredited. Unfortunately, this has led to some people abusing this law as a way of bringing their pets along to places they would not be permitted. This behavior puts accredited service animals at risk and puts any disabled person in their vicinity in unnecessary danger.
A Service Dog that finds a human partner as dedicated as they are to be consistent in their training, generous in their praise and affection, and focused on one another, will have a better quality of life together than they ever would have had alone.
For more information on Service Animals, visit these resources:
For personal stories and to connect with the owners of Service Animals, visit:
Hannah's Story: https://www.dinet.org/member-stories/lean-on-me-the-remarkable-story-of-a-young-woman-with-pots-and-the-dog-that-keeps-her-safe-r208/
Service Dogs for POTS - https://www.facebook.com/groups/110152023042832/ - this is a closed Facebook group, but if you send them a message to join or to get more info, they are very responsive.
1. Federal and State laws regarding Service Animals can be found at https://usaservicedogregistration.com/service-dog-state-laws/
2. In rare cases, the ADA will allow for a miniature horse to be certified as a Service Animal. https://adata.org/faq/i-heard-miniature-horses-are-considered-be-service-animals-ada-true
3. AKC Service Dog Training 101, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-dog-training-101/
4. Training Your Own Service Dog by Roxanne Furlong, http://www.newmobility.com/2006/12/training-your-own-service-dog/
5. “Top Dog Teamwork” from the article Training Your Own Service Dog by Roxanne Furlong http://www.newmobility.com/2006/12/training-your-own-service-dog/
6. Service Dog Training, Out and About https://thedogalliance.asapconnected.com/#CourseGroupID=12147
Edited by edriscoll