Dandy Dawgs Service Dog Training Program, Prescott, AZ
Dandy Dawgs Service Dog Training Program, Prescott, AZ

More on Assistance/Service Dog - Emotional Support Dog

What about Imposters?

by Andy Lloyd - 2016

More on Assistance/Service Dogs — Emotional Support Dogs   What about Imposters?

By definition, what qualifies as a Service or Assistance Dog according to the American Disabilities Act (ADA) is: “Dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” (The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows for a broader definition to allow for emotional support dogs. Service or Assistance Animals are dogs or miniature horses and nothing else.) ada.gov and ada.gov/service_animals_2010

Non-visible disabilities such as PTSD and psychiatric disabilities are often confused with emotional support issues. Frequently even people with the need of an Emotional Support Dog or Animal (ESA) are confused themselves regarding the difference. Dogs for less visible disabilities perform much needed tasks of preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, safety checks, interrupting dissociative behaviors or disorientation, medical alert to various needs, etc.

An animal is not a service animal if it simply benefits an individual with a disability by comforting them. A service animal must be trained to actively respond to a disability with a specific task relative to that specific disability. Recognition and response is the key focus for any service dog. An example of this would be that a service dog notices its handler beginning to dig at their skin and immediately nudges the handler, disrupting the destructive behavior.

Other examples would be that of an individual showing signs of a pending seizer. The service dog would bark, nudge or paw to alert their handler thus enabling the individual to take medication or prepare to be safe for the seizer. A service dog trained to alert to PTSD episodes might turn to face behind the handler, assuring the handler they are safe by watching behind them. The assistance or service dog can provide for both visible and non-visible disorders and perform many more tasks other than those mentioned.

The critical point to note is that they must perform specific tasks other than to make a person feel comforted or comfortable. Emotional support animals provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disability but are not trained to perform specific tasks to assist them.

Emotional support animals are not covered under ADA laws and provisions. They may be covered under the FHAA and ACAA . They are required to provide a letter from a physician stating the need of an individual to have their animal with them dated within one year. They are not allowed public access privileges such as restaurants, stores, public transportation other than airplanes and then only under physician referral. The animals are usually dogs and cats but could be rabbits, guinea pigs or other animals.

Emotional support dog handlers often misunderstand that the support of wellbeing, comfort or companionship is not considered a work or task in the ADA’s definition of a service animal. However a dog that is individually trained to perform work related tasks for a disability, often provide the added benefit of comfort due to underlying issues related to the disability.

As stated in the regulations, service animals are working animals and not pets. This suggests that both the handler and the public respect the service dog as on duty and is not to be played with or petted while working. It is important that the dog stay focused on its handler and not be unduly distracted.

Service and Assistance Dogs need to be of a temperament allowing for running children, being bumped, abrupt unexpected petting and all number of surprises the public environment may expose them to. They should deal with these unexpected events with little reaction.

Unfortunately many service dogs and handlers are not demonstrating skills typically expected from service dogs. The ADA does not specify or require certification or registration at this time and standards of training are weak. Service dog teams are not required to carry identification, disclose their disability or their dog’s training.

If it is not obvious what task the service dog provides, staff or management may ask two questions of a service dog handler: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability and what task has the dog been trained to perform? The service dog handler is required to answer those questions. Again, they are not required to disclose their disability by doing so but must answer appropriately. The general public should not approach a Service Dog Team with those questions as it could be construed as harassment. They should take their concerns to management.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) has been setting standards for assistance and service dogs since 1987. They have constructed minimum standards for guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility dogs (those considered to be Assistance Dogs) and for Service Dogs (which are all other types).

At the minimum, these standards certainly need to be adopted by all people handling or training a service dog. The ADI encourages training for service dog teams to be significantly higher. assistancedogsinternational.org

Many individuals are now training their own dogs or training businesses offering Service Dog Training all too frequently are not turning out dogs fully capable to emotionally deal with the public environment safely. Also, handlers are all too often not trained to properly handle their service dog. Couple that with the confusion of Emotion Support Dogs vs. Service Dogs and there are many dog teams in communities functioning far below acceptable behaviors and skills. ESA dogs are allowed on airplanes and need to be trained to handle that level of distraction with ease.

There is not a lot the public can do to assure the ADA laws for service dogs are not abused. In July 2015, the ADA published an update to help clarify frequently asked questions. Among other things, it addresses dogs riding in grocery carts; they cannot. ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa

Education of the actual laws will hopefully assure more ethical use and respect when a dog is being presented as a service dog. At this time there is little else but to accept what the handler says in response to the questions. If business staff, management or general public are uncertain as to their rights or what is correct in a situation, there are two hotlines to call: 1 800 949 4232 and 1 800 514 0301.

Whether you are an individual with a service dog, business owner or a community member with questions, call for correct ADA information before you act if you are not certain of your rights or that of the service dog team.

If you are an individual interested in training your own dog, contact an ethical Service Dog Trainer to assist you. Depending on where you and the dog are in training skills, it is likely to take a year to two years to prepare you and your dog to be a highly functioning Service Dog Team.

In the State of Arizona, Service Dogs in Training receive the same benefits as Service Dogs that are fully trained. That is not a free pass to take a dog that is not skilled or emotionally ready into all public places.

Businesses do have rights to refuse the presence of a service dog under specific situations and there is a fine for presenting a dog as a service dog who does not meet the ADA requirements. So please, utilize the contacts in this article to better educate yourself to the law.

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More on Assistance/Service Dogs — Emotional Support Dogs


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