What Is a Service Dog?

The labels “Service Dog” and “Assistance Dog” are used interchangeably to refer to dogs that accompany handlers who have disabilities covered by The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The ADA does not grant rights to dogs. It is a civil rights law that protects disabled people.

In granting rights to citizens with physical or mental disabilities, the ADA acknowledges service dogs as means of assistance, similar to crutches or a wheelchair, that are necessary for disabled individuals to achieve equal access to places of public accommodation. According to the ADA’s definition: “service dogs are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. To qualify, the dog’s skills must mitigate some aspect of the person’s disability”.

Many people are familiar with the presence of service animals. From the standard-bearer guide dog for the blind to the much photographed but rare service mini-horse, their presence is more and more visible. Even so, some people still ask, “How come they’re allowed to have an animal here?” Really, who wouldn’t want to take her dog with her everywhere? Not to mention that it seems much cheaper to buy your dog a vest that says “service dog” than it is to pay a dog walker or doggie day care.

Unfortunately, neither identifying equipment nor an ID card can, themselves, transform pets into working dogs. Vests and bogus certification are easily purchased by anyone with access to the Internet. Just because a dog is wearing a vest, without extensive training, she won’t know how to behave appropriately on public transportation, in airplanes, restaurants, grocery stores, at museums, or in other places of public accommodation.

Some dog owners do attempt to go beyond mere accessories in preparing their pets to accompany them in public. They might even train their dogs to be certified as Canine Good Citizens (CGC). CGC training is beneficial - well-socialized dogs with basic obedience training are more likely to live out their lives in loving homes, and are less likely to be rehomed or surrendered to shelters - but it does not qualify a dog to accompany a person into places where pet dogs are not allowed to go. Service dogs are not pets; they are highly trained working animals.

Service dogs encounter extraordinary circumstances in their daily lives – they enter environments to which pet dogs are rarely exposed and would likely find unsettling, frightening, or over-stimulating. For service dog candidates, passing a CGC test is an important benchmark from which they must continue on to intensive obedience and task training and further acclimatization to novel environments. That is to say, the CGC is an excellent end goal for a pet, but it is only the beginning for a working dog.

Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs are all working dogs, but not all are allowed legal access to public places. Each is covered under different statutes, held to different standards of training, despite the fact that, at times, they appear indistinguishable from one another when moving through the community with their handlers.

Selecting an appropriate candidate for service dog training is the most important element of preparing a dog for a working career. Temperament evaluations are essential, and do help weed out the obviously inappropriate candidates, but they offer no guarantees.

Service dog training is highly specialized.  The average cost of breeding, raising and training a service dog is $20,000 to $30,000. Becoming a service dog is an ongoing selective process that takes at least two years. Approximately fifty percent of all dogs bred, socialized, selected, and trained by owners or agencies to become service dogs either fail to complete training or must retire after a short career.  It can be a heartbreaking process.

It is unethical to expect some dogs to perform as service dogs. Such dogs include: ones with a shy or fearful temperament; those whose natural exuberance and high energy are not easily channeled to stay quietly by the side of a sedate human; those who are hyper-vigilant or aggressively protective.

When non-disabled people and their pet dogs masquerade as service dog teams they make disabled peoples’ lives more difficult. Putting service dog identification on pet dogs only makes them imposters. Poorly trained dogs variously pose risks to disabled handlers - in the worst cases by attacking and injuring the service dog or his handler. After an attack a traumatized service dog may have to be retired.

Let us work together as a community of responsible dog handlers to make our public spaces safe for disabled people and their working dogs.

FREE 10-minute phone consultation.

Fill out my questionnaire to start!

Contact Barbara by email: Barbara Handelman or by telephone 802-649-5213  •  Norwich, Vermont