July 17, 2021

 Sunday’s front page of our local news had an article about service dogs being trained in a small community near where we live.   The owner had been diagnosed at an early age with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.  She first got a job grooming dogs and realized how they relieved her anxiety.  That led to acquisition and training of their own service dog, and in October of 2020, they opened a training facility to help others find and train service dogs.  The mother-daughter team specialize in service animals and obedience training.  PTSD service dogs, diabetic service dogs, autistic service dogs, and seizure service dogs are all part of what they provide. 

The article made me wonder what the criteria were for classifying your dog as a service animal.  What I learned was there was a difference between a service animal (dog or miniature horse) and an emotional support animal (any animal).  According to Title II and Title III of the American Disabilities Act, a Service Animal is “any dog that is trained to perform tasks for the benefit of any person with a disability.”  The disability may include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other emotional disability.  Many people train their own service dogs, while others find trainers to work with the dogs.  Once your dog is trained, you can register the dog to be recognized in a national database.  Rather than assisting with a specific disability, emotional support animals ease a variety of mental disorders, like anxiety and depression.  Service animals are granted access wherever their owners go.  The same is true for emotional support animals, but you do require a note from your doctor or health care provider.

When I lived in California there was a group of trainers who asked to use the property where I worked to hold weekly meetings to train service dogs.  We had a large outdoor area for the dogs in addition to a large indoor auditorium, so the group could meet rain or shine.  The organization was accredited and had been training Labrador retrievers to assist with the blind.  This was a pilot program to see if they could get the same results with German shepherds.  Shepherds have a long history of being service dogs, but have a problem of attaching to the handler, making it harder for them to bond with the eventual owner.  The trainers used a staged approach to counter the bonding.  The puppies were raised by one handler, transferred to the discipline trainer, who handed them off for specialized training as a seeing eye dog.  That allowed the dog to finally create a strong bond with the owner.  When I looked online, it said German shepherds were among the four breeds most often used as seeing-eye dogs.  It must have worked.

Thoughts:  When our dog Bella was young, she was trained as a therapy animal.  This is a specialized service dog to provide affection and comfort in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.  Bella spent many afternoons in the school library listening to children read.  When I later took Bella to my camp, I got her an official vest and attached her name tag and designation as a therapy animal.  Bella loved to greet visitors, but never forgave my assistant for stepping on her tail.  Bella would hide under my desk every time the woman came into my office (btw:  she’s watching the eclipse).  While we sometimes treat pets as part of the family, service animals are a literal extension of their owner.  While they are given more access than pets, they are also held to strict rules, and misbehavior can result in losing their service status.  They are not to be approached or petted without the expressed permission of the owner.  Follow the science.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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