According to US Federal Law service dogs are any dog trained to assist a person with a disability overcome obstacles affecting their day to day life that directly result from their disability. As such, Service Animals are skilled and highly trained dogs who partner with people with disabilities. The American Disability Act provides protections for service dogs, allowing them to be anywhere that their handlers is legally allowed to be, with very few exceptions, which basically consist of special clean rooms and operating rooms. Service dogs are highly training animals, training in obedience, operating in a high traffic public area, specific tasks to assist the handler, and how to behave during emergencies. The two hardest part of service dog training is the actual medical tasks, and what is normally called “retail training”, or how to behave in crowded, high traffic public areas. For some great info about dogs and their intelligence, check out this article!
ESA and Therapy Dogs
There are two other types of working dogs that are often confused with service dogs. The first is an Emotional Support Dog, or ESA. These dogs are usually recommended by a doctor, but do not require as much documentation as a service dog. They do receive training, at least most do, but the training is based on obedience and showing emotion, rather than completing certain tasks. They are not training to be in a public environment. The other is a Therapy Dog, which is trained to help elevate the moods of other people. They are extremely obedient, and have special “desensitization” training, which helps them deal with loud kids grabbing them and people running up to them etc. Neither of these dogs are service dogs, and have no protections under the ADA.
Who needs a Service Dog?
Service dogs are for people who need assistance with certain tasks as a result of their disability to be able to live their daily lives. There are 12 different types of service dogs, they are allergy alert dogs, autism assistance dogs, brace / mobility support dogs, diabetic alert dogs, hearing dogs, medical alert dogs, medical assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs, seizure response dogs, visual assistance dogs, and wheelchair assistance dogs. According to the ADA all dogs are equal and all share the same rights. Some dogs however, do not fit exactly into one of these categories, and some may fit into two or three. The categories just help to differentiate between the different types of training.The most often confusion comes with psychiatric service dogs. They are not for people who need the companionship to feel less anxious or safe in crowds. They are for specific tasks, such as intervening in anxiety attacks, encouraging taking and delivering medicine (usually in a small pouch on their vest) during anxiety attacks or PTSD driven hallucinations.
Obtaining a Service Dog
Generally obtaining a service dog will not start with a request, but rather as a suggestion from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Once a therapist suggests you need a service dog, the next questions is who is going to pay for it? Many insurance agencies will at least help pay for the dog, but they will require certain documents and testing be done before they authorize it. Service dogs are extremely expensive. Depending on the training and the trainers, it can be anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000. You have to keep in mind though, that most of these dogs have been in training for at least 18 months.
So you have a letter from your therapist, and you have secured the approval from your insurance for payment. Now you need to find a dog. There are a lot of companies that work with insurance companies and such that will act as a middle man. A lot of service dogs are not trained by large operations, but rather independent trainers who only work with one or two dogs at a time. These intermediaries are partnered with these trainers to home their dogs, and know who has what available and when. Regardless of what an internet search may teach you, there is no such thing as registering a service dog. The companies out there that try to convince you of that just want your money, and help people who don’t have or need a service dog pass their pets of as service dogs. No national registry exist in the US.
Once you are paired with a dog, you will do what is know as an attachment visit. Basically you meet the dog and see if you guys are a good match from a personality perspective. Then the trainer will work with you and the dog on exactly what you need the dog to do. Often the dog will go back into training for another 30 to 60 days, to work on addressing your specific needs.
The next part depends on the trainer, but this is how I was taught. The next phase would be a “you train with us” session. For a few days or weeks, depending on the needs, you will come to us, to train and work with the dog in his environment. This not only allows you to learn from the trainer what is expected on you, but also builds the bond and confidence working with the dog while also allowing the dog to begin to imprint on you.
Then comes the “we train with you” session, where the dog and trainers comes to work with you in your environment. This is the final part of the process and really applies the finishing touches on what exactly you need from the dog, the bond between you and the dog, and the dogs willingness to imprint and take commands from you.
Now once the dog is in it’s new home the training and bond will only improve. It is important to read the rules, and learn how they apply to you. You now have a compassionate and caring partner for life.