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Ask Dr. Jo: What is a ‘service dog’

A service dog
Compiled by Dr. Jo Olver

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — There is confusion with terminology sometimes. And Service Dog vs Emotional Support Animal vs Working Dog brings on the confusion.

Every dog owner knows there are many benefits to having a dog, from getting themselves out for exercise to receiving loyal companionship. However, for some people with mental or emotional conditions, the presence of a dog is critical to their ability to function normally on a daily basis. The pet provides emotional support and comfort that helps them deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life. These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESAs). 

Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, also called an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life. The dogs can be of any age and any breed.

Service dogs provide different support for people.

These are just some of the things a service dog can do:

  • •          Guide dogs help blind people navigate in the world.  They are specifically trained to lead blind and visually impaired people, helping them navigate situations or obstacles they normally would not be able to.
  • •          Hearing (or signal) dogs alert deaf people to sounds, such as a knock on the door or a person entering the room.
  • •          Psychiatric dogs are trained to detect and lessen the effects of a psychiatric episode.
  • •          Service dogs help those in wheelchairs or who are otherwise physically limited. They may open doors or cabinets, fetch things their handler can’t reach, and carry items for their handler.
  • •          Autism assistance dogs are trained to help those on the autism spectrum. They can distinguish important sensory signals, such as a smoke alarm, from other sensory input. They may also alert their handler to repetitive behaviors or overstimulation.
  • •          Some service dogs that are trained to recognize seizures and will stand guard over their handler during a seizure or go for help.

Therapy dogs play a different helping role than service dogs and emotional support animals. They aren’t trained to live with a specific handler. Rather, these are dogs that, with their human teammate (often the dog’s owner), volunteer in clinical settings.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” 

In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) announced final revisions to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The final rule, effective in January 2021, defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  This change in the DOT’s definition of “service animal” aligns closely with the definition that the Department of Justice uses under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under these definitions Service Dog does not equal Emotional Support Dog.

Unfortunately, some people may fraudulently misrepresent their dogs as service animals.  

This harms the truly disabled, confuses the public, and affects the reputation of legitimate service dog users. Even worse, a poorly-trained fake service animal can be a danger to the public and to real service dogs. 

In response to this growing problem, the American Kennel Club issued a policy position statement called “Misuse of Service Dogs.”

In 2016, the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans created “CGC Plus,” a minimum standard for training and behavior for the service dogs their members provide to veterans. CGC Plus mandates that dogs pass the AKC Canine Good CitizenCommunity Canine, and Urban CGC tests, plus demonstrate proficiency in performing three randomly selected specific services for a disabled person.

ASDAC (American Service Dog Access Coalition)  is building an “opt-in” service dog credentialing system, Service Dog Pass (SDP), that will streamline the air travel process for service dog teams while also reducing the challenges faced by gatekeepers when working to accommodate them. SDP will provide airlines with relevant information to easily identify valid, well-trained service dogs while also providing service dog teams with increased comfort and confidence to travel by plane.

Is a working dog a service dog? Generally, they are not considered service dogs – and usually their training is far more extensive and intensive than service dogs.

A working dog is a purpose-trained canine that learns and performs tasks to assist its human companions.  Detection, herding, hunting, search and rescue, police, and military dogs are all examples of working dogs. Working dogs often rely on their excellent sense of smell to help out where humans fall short. 

Since working dogs are specifically trained to perform certain roles in certain locations, they’re not often subject to legal ramifications. When they’re on the job, however, working dogs shouldn’t be approached or petted. Doing their job properly requires a high level of focus without distractions.

Regardless of the definitions, all dogs should start basic training such as that set out in Canine Good Citizen programs. Whether you are planning on getting your dog CGC certified or just looking to learn more about the test this e-book is a great place to start. 10 Essential Skills: Canine Good Citizen Test Items can be found on the AKC website.

Part of responsible dog ownership is in teaching your dog to be a good citizen — we used to call them ‘Good Neighbor Dogs’.