Animal Writes
From 22 May 2005 Issue

The Scoop on Service Dogs
By Michelle Rivera - [email protected]

It used to be so easy to spot them, with their expensive leather halters. The name "Leader Dog" or "Seeing Eye Dog" stamped right into the leather. And they were always accompanied by a person wearing dark sunglasses and we would look at them in wonder, (never pity), and just a little envy that this person deserved to have such a nice dog. We knew not to ever touch them, these fine dogs, or talk to them or distract them in any way.

The sight of someone with a seeing-eye dog is so touching that a few years ago a story hit the news about a gentleman whose dog had died while on duty. This elderly gent was seen every day by those who worked in and around the courthouse. He would walk up and down Olive, his loyal service dog leading the way, as he boarded the bus, shopped and made his way from work to home and back again. But then, the unthinkable happened. The dog, having given all that he could, suffered a heart attack and died on the sidewalk, leaving his bewildered master in confusion and fear. It was a blistering hot day in the city as passers-by rushed to the aid of the pair, taking them to the veterinarian and helping the gentleman get home safely. In the days that followed, the story hit all the news stations and donations poured in to help this man, who had become something of a local celebrity after all those years, acquire another seeing-eye dog. The community reaches out in times of need, and never more so than when an animal is involved.

But it's not so easy to spot a dog who may be performing a service anymore. These days, service dogs may be employed as eyes for the blind or ears for the deaf, but that's not all. These days, we find dogs who perform such services as:

* Detecting seizures before they happen so that their owner can take a pill or don a helmet or otherwise prepare for the impending event;

* Detecting changes in the heart's sinus rhythm, thereby notifying the owner that a heart attack may be imminent so that s/he can take a nitroglycerin tablet;

* Assist with mobility those who are confined to a wheelchair, suffer from spinal disorders or are otherwise unable to "get around" on their own;

* Pick up items that are dropped, open the refrigerator, turn on lights, navigate around store displays and other related services.

* Help with psychiatric problems such as agoraphobia or depression.

And the good news is, these dogs are protected under the law courtesy of the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) of 1990. The laws are pretty clear on this and there's not a lot of patience on the part of the federal government for those who break the law, so those who work with the public, in retail or government, may do well to educate themselves on what is and is not acceptable under the ADA.

First of all, understand that there is a big difference between service dogs and therapy dogs. The latter are not protected under the ADA and are not allowed in public places where dogs are typically banned. A good way to remember the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog is the following distinction: A service dog focuses on the person he is serving and ignores everyone else. A therapy dog focuses on everyone else and takes his cue from his human partner while "ministering" to the others in the room. Service dogs live in people's homes and accompany them on their daily routines. Therapy dogs also live with people or could be residents of a nursing home. One usually sees them visiting patients in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and schools. Both therapy dogs and service dogs may wear vests, but there is nothing in the law that mandates that a service dog wear a vest or other identifiers. Also, the person with the service dog does not have to carry any certification as to the nature of their disability or the service that the dog performs. Business owners who have been told by county and/or state agencies that they may only allow guide dogs to the exclusion of other service animals will be in clear violation of the federal law if they adhere to that mandate. The federal law supersedes all municipal, county or state regulations.

Retail and government or service employees are not allowed to ask a person with a service dog to leave the property or they could face stiff penalties for committing a federal offense. They are also not allowed to ask the person with the dog about the nature of their disability. An employee may ask "Is this a service dog?" but once told that the dog is, indeed, a working service dog, s/he must allow the dog and the person to go about their business. As far as the human is concerned, they are still bound by law to comply with leash laws, vaccination laws and protocol -- that is, the dog must be well-behaved and not cause a nuisance in the place of business.

There is no requirement that the dog be of any specific breed(s) and can be of any breed or a mixed breed. No obligation exists under the law for a dog to be a graduate of an accredited training program. A dog can be considered a service dog even if the owner trained the dog himself. This is the kink in the law in that some people have come to used to bring pets that are not service animals into retail establishments. The retailer really has no recourse if told that the animal is a service animal. However, when people do this, it ruins it for everyone and causes a great deal of mistrust that is simply not warranted or fair to those with true disabilities and service dogs.

So what should you do when seeing a person with a service dog? Well, the best thing is to just let them go about their business without being singled out for questions or conversation. If you simply cannot help yourself because you just love dogs so much and must greet the dog, (and everyone totally understands that) there are some basic rules of etiquette that should be followed:

Speak to the person first, don't automatically direct verbal or non-verbal noises in the dog's general direction;

Ask for, and wait to receive, permission to speak to and/or pet the dog;

Never feed the dog or offer him treats;

Do not ask the person about the nature of their disability or the dog's services (how would you like to discuss your medical conditions with strangers?);

Try not to be offended if the person does not grant permission to interact with the dog or does not want to chat. You have those days too.

For more information on this topic you may visit:

Canine Companions for Independence 

United States Department of Justice

 Training Your Own Service Dog 

The Delta Society 

 (Michelle Rivera is a humane educator and the author of Canines in the Classroom, Raising Humane Children Through Interactions with Animals)

Go on to Related Article: Guide Dogs Under Attack By Family Pets
Return to 22 May 2005 Issue
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