Contributing Author: Gentle Heron
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “service dog” as a canine that has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.” The dog must be trained to “take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.”
The Department of Justice, which administers the ADA, gives several examples of the tasks service dogs can do. A diabetes service dog can alert its owner when blood sugar levels go out of range, either too high or too low. A depression service dog can remind its owner to take medications. An epilepsy service dog can detect the beginning of seizures and keep its owner safe until the seizure abates.
Service dogs can be trained to pick up dropped objects, assist their owners to get out of bed or remove clothing, bring requested items, open doors, and pull wheelchairs up inclines. They can also learn to stabilize people who have trouble walking. You will want to think about what a dog might be able to do to add to your quality of life.
Not considered service dogs but still covered by the ADA because of their specific training, guide dogs (sometimes called seeing eye dogs, named for one of the organizations that trains them) assist people who are blind or vision impaired, and hearing dogs assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Training and using a guide or hearing dog differs from that required for a service dog.
(NOTE: Dogs that provide emotional support or companionship are NOT considered service dogs under the ADA, because they are not trained for a specific task.)
Assistance Dogs International sets standards for training and using service dogs. These standards include recommended qualifications for service dog owners, although various agencies have their own requirements. In general, a service dog owner must have a neurological or physical disability affecting mobility in at least one limb, must be physically and cognitively capable of participating in training to use the dog and in taking care of the dog following training, and be in a stable living environment without other dogs.
A number of organizations in the US and worldwide train and provide service dogs. Some examples of organizations working with individuals who would benefit from having a service dog for people with mobility or other impairments are:
- 4 Paws for Ability (for children and veterans)
- Paws with a Cause
- Canine Partners for Life
- Assistance Dogs UK
- Canadian Association of Guide & Assistance Dog Schools
- Assistance Dogs Australia
Obtaining a service dog is a lengthy and expensive process. There are often long waiting lists when you apply to an agency to obtain a service dog, sometimes as long as two to three years. Once your service needs are established, the dog must be trained in the behaviors it will use to support you. Most adult dogs require training of 1-2 hours a day over 6 months to 4 years to learn the necessary supportive behaviors.
Once the dog is trained for your needs, you are trained to work with the dog as a team. This takes an intense 3 to 4 weeks, often in a residential program at the organization’s training site. You must learn to work correctly with the dog, and develop a personal bond with the animal. Most programs “certify” both the dog and the trainer at completion of this team-development experience.
Obtaining a service dog can cost upwards of $30,000. Of course there are ongoing costs for feeding, medical care and general animal upkeep. The Assistance Dog United Campaign helps people who need a service dog but are not able to raise the funds themselves by providing vouchers to their extensive list of member organizations in the US and Canada.
One important consideration to remember is that animals do not have access rights – only people have access rights. In most jurisdictions, people with disabilities and their service dog partner have the legal right to go into public places normally prohibited to pet animals. Always check local laws about access for service dogs.
Images credit: Pixabay