What is a Service Animal?

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

A service animal has been trained to assist a person with a specific disability or medical issue.

Dogs are the most common animal trained for this purpose. Service dogs can be any breed, especially when it comes to diabetic alert dogs or hearing dogs. NOw, miniature horses, who live longer than dogs have been trained to assist people who are blind or visually impaired.

Here is a short film I made for Handi-Dogs, an organization that helps owners to train service dogs, many of which come from shelters, and are carefully selected to become great service dogs. This video shows some of what service dogs do, and I have a little fun while showing that not all dogs are destined to become service dogs, which require a very specific temperament and aptitude.

Some dogs are trained for mobility issues, and can do a variety of helpful things, such as turn on and off lights, open drawers and cabinets (with pull ropes attached), can retrieve dropped items, pick up phones, pull off socks, push disability door open buttons, and many more individual tasks.

Some dogs are trained to provide stability, to allow their person to "brace" if they have fallen, or are unsteady.

Capuchin monkeys, with their dexterous hands, are trained by an organization in Boston called "Helping Hands." These monkeys can help paralyzed people, as they can open pill bottles, turn on and off lights, pull up blankets, assist with feeding, grooming, and numerous other tasks.

Casey, a Capuchin Monkey has totally changed life for Ned Sullivan, a quadripalegic, who was in a car crash. Life with Casey wasn't easy at first, but once they bonded and learned mutual respect, Casey opened up possibilities for Ned.

Hearing dogs alert their owners to phones, doorbells, sirens, and help with a variety of tasks.

Most people are familiar with seeing- eye dogs, who are usually larger dogs, whose owners walk them with a hard harness. But today dogs can be trained to help with a variety of issues, such as hearing alert dogs, which may be smaller breeds.

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to recognize both high and low blood sugar levels in their person, and to alert them that they need to take protective action.

Seizure alert dogs can help their person recognize when a seizure is coming on so that the person can get to a safer position or get help. It can be very expensive to train a seizure alert dog because of the unpredictability of seizures, training time can be extensive. Interestingly, about 20% of shelter rescue dogs will learn how to alert their person -- without any formal training. Then it is a matter of whether the owner is paying attention to the alert from their animal.

Service dogs who are trained to work with autistic children are nothing short of miracle workers. They can help calm children down, anticipate an emotional meltdown, help them navigate

Service Animals have access to all situations, airplanes, restaurants, hotels, and any public place. To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, access to the person and their service animal cannot be denied. This open-access is not provided to therapy animals, emotional support animals, or pets. While it is against the law to deny access, in some states, it is also against the law to present a pet as a service animal.

These access rights are protected through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as of March, 2011. This sets service dogs apart from the other categories of assistance dogs. Shubert quotes the ADA definition of what a service dog is:

"Any dog that is 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 work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler's disability."

Not all disabilities are visually obvious, such as blindness. So it is important not to assume you can know if a dog is a service animal; however, by observing, you will be able to determine if they are or are not properly trained. In a public place, the manager or person in charge may ask, "Is this your service dog?" They may also ask, "What service does this animal provide for you?" Beyond that, they may not ask personal questions about your medical condition or other topics unrelated. They can ask to see some paperwork or credentials. If a dog is not behaving properly, they can be asked to leave.

Service animals have a great deal of specific training, often one to three years of full- time training. According to an article in Time Magazine, “Bringing Dogs to Heal,” a Service Dog that has been trained by an organization that specializes in this, may produce a dog that can understand about 80 different commands and perform these requested tasks. “The ADI, Assistance Dog International, represents 73 U.S. dog-training organizations that voluntarily agree to training standards. ADI dogs have access to airports, hotels and other public spaces that don't allow common pets, so this is a very useful designation.” Service Dogs will have very good social and obedience skills, and pet animals, no matter how sweet or well-behaved will not pass as service dogs by those who know the difference.

Training a Service Animal

Depending upon the tasks needed, and the individual dog, Service training can start from birth and last for a couple of years of full-time training. There are several prison programs that train puppies to prepare them with basic obedience and for more formal service training. Even among dogs who are bred for service, the "failure rate" can be as much as half to two-thirds. This can be anything from "too playful, or distractable, too friendly, not a good enough work ethic or numerous other issues." Some dogs that "flunk" service dog school make excellent visiting therapy dogs, great pets, or even other types of service such as search and rescue dogs.

Ricochet was an example of a "puppy prodigy" who was being groomed to be a service dog and did everything perfectly -- until she hit adolescence, when she went on strike. She loved to chase birds, and she was about to be given away when her owner-trainer discovered she loved to surf. She went on to become a "surfice dog," assisting paralyzed children on a tandem surfboard, giving them a once in a lifetime experience.

There are many organizations that specifically train service dogs, which is a very specialized training and requires dogs that are totally suited to this life purpose.

One company, Canine Companions for Independence, describes their purpose on their website:

"Canine Companions for Independence service dogs are partnered with adults with physical disabilities to assist with daily tasks and increase independence by reducing reliance on other people. A service dog can pull their partner in a manual wheelchair, push buttons for elevators or automatic doors, can dial 911, and even assist with business transactions by transferring money, receipts, and packages. A Canine Companions service dog not only assists with physical tasks, but also provides social support.

The issue of social support is very important, as many people with disabilities become isolated, or avoid contact. Having a service dog can invite contact and interaction with people. Keeping them engaged with others is just one way dogs can become an emotional lifeline for people."

The Cost of Training a Service Dog

Training service animals is very labor intensive. The Susquehanna Service Dogs website says it costs them “Over $20,000 to breed, raise, train, certify and place a service dog.” The training of a seeing-eye service dog can cost up to $60,000, partly because of the high failure rate. Only two in ten highly promising dogs will successfully complete the full training and pass final approval tests. For other service dogs it can take two or three years of intensive training, with an average of two out of five training candidates passing – even after succeeding through several qualifications during the first year of training. Even if the dogs are bred for this work, and trained from the first couple of days or weeks of life, these high failure rates still occur.

Most Service Dog Training begins at birth, with basic socialization, eye contact and other skills.

A dog who “fails” service training, however, may become excellent in animal assisted therapy, or become an emotional support dog, or a companion animal. The high costs of training, coupled with small completion numbers, means that there is often a several year waiting list for those who need a service animal. While Susquehanna gets donations from various sources to offset the high costs, the client still needs to pay around $5,000, and of course, there are costs associated with a lifetime of canine care.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals (ESA), which can be almost any kind of animal, provide emotional support, relief from anxiety, companionship, help with PTSD, and a variety of unique functions. These animals perform life-changing functions for their people, allowing them to re-engage with their world. However, it is important to remember that ESA animals do not have the same privileges of public access that service animals have.

This amazing Service Dog and helps his person in so many ways. But he still finds time to play, just like a dog. This is important, because working dogs need time off, to reset and just play.

Sophia, my service dog, helps me with my brain injury and hearing impairment. She also helps me work with other animals who need healing from trauma. Here we are working with Miss Betsy, who used to be terrified of horses. After healing, Miss Betsy came to enjoy our herd of three, and we took lovely walks together.

Sophia, my service dog, helps me with horses who are afraid of dogs.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection



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