When most people think of service dogs, the image of a guide dog leading a blind person comes to mind. Perhaps they think of a dog assisting a person in a wheelchair. Rarely does the image spring to mind of a person who can see and walk, who can hear, and who appears to have no disability. However, service dogs are an essential part of the lives of countless people with invisible disabilities, and the service dogs and their handlers have the same rights to public access that a guide dog and a blind handler have.1
What is an invisible disability? There are many different invisible disabilities that can be assisted by a service dog. Mental illness, emotional disabilities, autism, epilepsy, heart conditions, and traumatic brain injury are some disabilities that can be invisible to the casual observer, such as store employees or people passing on the street. Yet service dogs are specially trained to assist people with each of these conditions.2 The dogs used for these invisible disabilities usually fall into three categories: psychiatric service dogs, medical alert dogs, and mobility assistance dogs.
The use of psychiatric service dogs is fairly recent, but many people with psychiatric disabilities such as severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder have found the dogs invaluable. Psychiatric service dogs can make a depressed person climb out of bed in the morning and face the day. They can alleviate anxiety in public places for a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The dogs can be trained to perform any task the disabled individual needs in order to live as normal a life as possible.
Medical alert dogs are used by people with a medical condition such as epilepsy or diabetes. The dogs are specially trained to alert their handler when the medical condition is about to worsen or needs special attention. In the case of a seizure alert dog, the dog will alert the handler to an impending seizure so that the person can get to a safe place or seek help, depending on the type of seizures the person has. Seizure alert dogs also stay with their handlers during and after the seizure, providing comfort and protection until the person recovers. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert their handlers to low or high blood sugar levels, both of which can cause serious and possibly life-threatening issues if left untreated.
Mobility assistance dogs help people with disabilities that affect mobility, such as traumatic brain injury or severe arthritis. Depending on the part of the brain affected, a person with a traumatic brain injury may have balance problems. In these cases, a mobility assistance dog can help the person stay balanced while walking or assist a fallen handler in getting up. For a person with severe arthritis simple, everyday tasks such as retrieving a dropped item or picking up a can from the bottom shelf at a grocery store can be extremely painful or impossible. A mobility assistance dog can be trained to retrieve items and give them to the handler, enabling the handler to live as normally as possibly.
Service dogs for people on the autism spectrum are sometimes considered psychiatric service dogs and other times considered medical service dogs. Autism service dogs can be trained to perform many of the same tasks other service dogs perform, such as alerting the handler to alarms, preventing the handler from walking into traffic, or leading an overstimulated handler to a quiet place. As with other types of service dogs, the specific tasks trained are dependent upon the individual’s unique needs.
What breeds are used as service dogs? Although many people think of golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers as the only breeds trained as service dogs, these are only two of countless breeds that can be used. Mobility dogs are generally large, strong breeds, including Rottweiler, Doberman pinscher, and standard poodle. Medical alert dogs and psychiatric service dogs can be any size and breed. Service dogs specifically for those with autism spectrum disorders also vary in size and breed, depending on the needs of the individual. Not all service dogs are purebreds. Many service dog handlers, especially those with psychiatric service dogs, adopt mixed breed dogs from an animal shelter. The breed and the size of the dog is dependent upon the needs of the person with the disability. The personality of the dog is also an important factor, since not all dogs are able to handle the stress and rigors of the life of a working dog.
Regardless of the type of disability a person has or the type of service dog required for that individual, all service dogs handlers have the same rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows service dogs public access, which means disabled people can take their service dogs anywhere the general public is allowed, including movie theaters, restaurants, stores, and hotels. Although the ADA makes no mention of service dogs in training, some states grant service dogs in training the same access rights as fully trained service dogs.
Under the ADA, places of public accommodation are allowed to ask only two questions of a service dog handler:
- Is the dog required because of a disability?
- What tasks or work is the dog trained to do?
They are not allowed to ask what the person’s disability is or request documentation proving the disabled person needs a service dog.3 Anyone who denies a disabled person with a service dog access to a public place commits a crime that is punishable by law.
The law does, however, give places of public accommodation the right to ask a service dog handler to remove the dog from the premises if the dog is out of control, i.e. barking excessively, biting, destroying property, etc. A service dog handler is responsible for the dog’s care and must be in control of the dog at all times. If the service dog damages property, the handle is liable.4 Incidents such as these are rare, however, since service dogs are well-trained.
For more information on service dogs
Service Dog Central http://www.servicedogcentral.org/
Psychiatric Service Dog Society http://www.psychdog.org
- U.S. Department of Justice: Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business http://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm
- U.S. Department of Justice: Revised ADA Requirements: Service Animals http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
- U.S. Department of Justice: ADA Business Brief: Service Animals http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
- Service Dog Central: New Section Regarding Service Animals Added http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/516
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