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August 5, 2015

What is a Service (or Assistance) Dog?

The following is an article which defines what a service or assistance dog is, and the guidelines that govern the use of service dogs in public places as defined by the American with Disabilities Act.

What is a Service (or Assistance) Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs the use of service dogs in public places. The ADA guarantees people with disabilities who use service dogs equal access to public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, shops, and government buildings. However, these protections only apply to dogs that satisfy the ADA’s definition of service animal. The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is “individually trained” to “perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” The tasks a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. The ADA limits the definition of service animals to dogs. A “helper monkey” or a cat cannot be considered a service animal under the ADA.

A well-known example of service dogs are guide dogs that help people with visual impairments to navigate safely around obstacles. Service dogs can also be trained to assist individuals with hearing impairments, wheelchair-users and other people with mobility impairments, as well as people who have psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. Hearing assist dogs are trained to alert to a knock on the door or a smoke alarm by actively nudging their partner. Mobility assist dogs can pick up dropped items even as small a credit card and place it back into an open hand, with a steady gentle ‘pull’ they can help someone out of a chair, or with a tug pull off shoes and socks. A medical alert assistance dog is trained to alert a person to a medical crisis such as dropping blood sugar in the case of someone with Diabetes, or alerting to the presence of a particular food/substance for someone with a life threatening allergy. A dog can be trained to interrupt the repetitive behavior experienced by children on the autism spectrum. All of these trained tasks are directly related to the individual’s disability and meet the ADA’s requirement for accessibility to public places.

The ADA requires reasonable accommodation for a service dog. This is a two way street between the public establishment and the partner of a service dog. The person with a disability and their trained assistance dog are granted access IF the assistance dog’s behavior meets specific requirements.

Public entities have the right to expect that a trained assistance dog will not bark in a theatre, beg or eat food off the floor in a restaurant, and absolutely not urinate in the middle of the mall. A service dog must have proper social skills. There can be no aggressive behavior toward people or other animals: no biting, snapping, growling, snarling or lunging. They must be socialized to tolerate strange sights, sounds and odors in a wide variety of public settings. There can be no unwanted sniffing of merchandise, people or other animals, or other unruly behavior or unnecessary vocalizations in public. A service dog must walk calmly on a leash. If a service dog does not comply consistently with these skills, the shop owner or even an employer can ask that the dog be removed.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI), the accrediting body for service dog programs, advocate that a service dog train a minimum of 2 hours per day for six months, in other words for 360 hours The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) minimum training standards for public access require 120 hours of obedience training over 6 months with an experienced dog trainer. While this sounds like a lot of time, what really takes time is the early socialization with exposure to a wide variety of experiences that build confidence.  Service dog programs prefer to begin training their dogs as young puppies and typically partner the dog when the dog is two years old.

It takes a lot to become a service dog but the results make it worth all the time and energy. A successful service dog partnership can bring freedom and independence. The closed door is no longer a barrier. The four legged partner, willingly and with joy, will open it. Successful partnerships can bring security and confidence. If an alarm is sounding a hearing assist service dog will alert enabling an appropriate response. A successful partnership can open up the world.

The following is a document published by the Department of Justice in 2015

Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA

To learn more about the success of our clients and an ICAN service dog, visit Client Success Stories. To learn more about Indiana laws on service dogs, please visit Service Dog Laws. For teaching materials and other materials, please be sure to visit our page on additional Resources.