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Service Animals and Pet Therapy

Boy and Dog
Animals have provided people with companionship, affection, entertainment, and unique friendships for centuries. According to the American Humane Society, 46% of American households have at least one dog, and 39% have a cat. But service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals go beyond the role of companionable pets. Service animals are well-trained, highly disciplined workers who can perform very specific tasks, act as guides, help their owners maintain emotional balance, and provide an essential sense of well-being. These working animals can help a person with a physical or psychological disability to live a more independent, healthier, happier, or more mobile life.

Service Animals

According to the 2010 revisions of the ADA, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The dog must perform tasks that are specifically related to its owner’s disability. For example, a service animal for a person who is deaf might be trained to alert its owner when an alarm sounds or when the telephone rings. If the dog is trained to push buttons, but its owner has full mobility and vision, it will not qualify as a service animal for that individual.
The ADA definition excludes animals that are not dogs, with an exception for miniature horses. However, other animals, such as monkeys and birds, although not included in the ADA definition (and so not regulated by federal law), can also provide valuable services for people with disabilities.

What can service animals do?

Service animals can guide people who are blind, alert people who are deaf, pull a wheelchair, remind a person to take medication, push buttons for those with limited movement or dexterity, alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, calm a person with severe anxiety or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). They can provide autism assistance and assistance to those who live with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD). Service animals are considered working animals, not pets.

Where can a service animal go?

Service animals are allowed anywhere the general public is allowed. They can legally accompany their owners into businesses, hospitals, on public transportation, at school, and in many other places. There are some places where they are not allowed. For example, a service animal is not allowed is an operating room because they can compromise the sterility of the environment (operating rooms are not open to the general public). They are not allowed in a place where they may compromise the safety of the public or their handler. Churches are also free to determine whether or not they wish to admit a service animal.
Many businesses and individuals are not familiar with the laws and regulations that govern service animals. As long as your animal is trained to assist you with the limitations caused by your disability, and is under your control, it is allowed to accompany you in places that are open to the public.
If it is not obvious what service your animal provides, two questions are permitted:
  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
You are not required to disclose the nature of your disability or to provide certification or documentation of any kind. Some people who use a service animal carry a card or brochures that explain the use and regulations that govern service animals. This way, if you encounter someone who does not know the laws, or refuses to admit you with your service animal, you are well prepared to share the information. Pet Partners offers further information.
A few of the laws and guidelines from the ADA include:
  • If you are in a place where the local or state laws differ from the federal laws, the least restrictive law applies.
  • Allergies or fear of dogs are not acceptable reasons to deny a service dog’s entry. If it is possible, schedules should be arranged so the dog and the allergic or afraid person do not have to share the room at the same time. Otherwise, try to situate the dog in another part of the room.
  • A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
  • Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons, treated less favorably than other patrons, or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. Additionally, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If a business such as a hotel normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.
  • Staff is not required to provide care or food for a service animal.
  • See ADA Requirements for Service Animals.

Service Dogs for Children

Many service dog training programs do not provide dogs for children, but the number of organizations that are successfully training dogs for children is growing. Just a few benefits of a child having a service dog can be:



  • Increased Independence
  • Increased Awareness
  • Improved Communication
  • Safety
  • Decreased Anxiety
  • Self-Esteem
  • Increased Social Interaction
Boy in Wheelchair with Dog
Service animals can be trained specifically for the needs of the individual child. There are many organizations that train dogs for a specific disability or need.

Basic Service Dogs

Basic service dogs can help people who use assistive devices, including wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers. These dogs help by picking up dropped items, manipulating light switches, opening doors, and carrying items. “Laptop Dogs” are a small service dogs with the ability to jump up on counters, retrieve items, and then to jump with the item into their owner’s lap.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs help those with hearing impairment by responding to sounds such as a knock on the door, alarm clocks, or their owner’s name. The hearing dog must respond and alert the owner whenever they hear a trained sound.

Seizure Alert Dogs

These dog identify when a seizure is about to happen and alert their partner (the child or parent) so they can respond and prepare appropriately.

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs are the oldest style of service dog, and the most commonly known by the general public. These dogs are trained to negotiate obstacles, overhangs, barriers, street crossings, city and country work, and public transportation to help individuals with sight impairments.

Dogs for Psychiatric Disabilities

As of March 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for dogs to help individuals with psychiatric or other mental disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The ADA clearly states that the dog must be trained to do a task directly related to the handler’s disability and that companionship, emotional support, and comfort do not qualify as tasks. An example of a task which might be accomplished by a dog in this area is that the dog would nudge the handler when an undesired or impulsive behavior begins, such as body rocking caused by anxiety. The dog’s nudge helps the handler become aware of the behavior so he or she is better able to control the anxiety response.

Walker or Balance Dogs

These are generally large breed dogs with a body weight of half, or more, of the handler’s body weight. They wear harnesses specific to their work—some will be trained to help an individual get to or from a standing position or balance in a standing position, while others are trained to assist with walking and help prevent falls. Some walker or balance dogs are trained for a combination of the above tasks.

Social Dogs

Social dogs help children who cannot assume total responsibility for a working dog, but who can benefit from the assistance a dog can give in learning important social skills. These dogs are always facilitated by the nature of their work to encourage social interaction between the child, the dog, and other individuals.

Autism Assistance Dogs

These dogs can help children with autism with a variety of challenges, including:
  • Wandering: Autism assistance dogs are trained in search and rescue, so they’re great at finding a child who has wandered off or run away, as children with autism often do.
  • Repetitive behaviors: An autism assistance dog can be trained to help a child recognize and address repetitive behaviors. For example, it might place its nose on the child’s foot if the child begins a repetitive behavior, reminding the child gently, patiently, and without judgment.
  • Sleeping: Many children who have struggled to sleep through the night suddenly sleep soundly with their service dog nearby.
  • Supervision and Security: Children can be tethered to their dog when out shopping or at the park, allowing parents peace of mind, and calming the child.
  • Emotional bonding: The bond that often develops between a child with autism and her service dog can be surprising and deep. Children with autism service dogs often share affectionate relationships with their dogs, relationships they have been unable to develop with other people. Sometimes the child is even able to learn behaviors from working with their dog that are transferrable to their human relationships—hugging and kissing are a couple of examples.
The stories of children who have benefited from working with an autism assistance dog are filled with hope. Families claim to have found a more peaceful life, and to have seen their child grow in ways they didn’t think were possible.
To find assistance dogs in your area, go to:

Miniature Horses

Although the revised ADA defines service animals as dogs, they make an allowance for miniature horses. A miniature horse is just that: a horse that measures less than 38 inches to the bottom of its mane. They are known to be friendly animals that get along well with people. Their life span is around 25 years—significantly longer than that of dogs. Although miniature horses can be housebroken and are fairly agile, they do best when they live outdoors, which can be a drawback for some people, particularly those who live in a dense urban area. Miniature horses can be an excellent service animal option for people who are afraid of or allergic to dogs, and they are quite strong, so they are able to provide physical support to those who need it.
The Guide Horse Foundation provides a safe, cost effective and reliable mobility alternative for people with visual impairment at no cost.

Emotional Support Animal

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides support and comfort for someone with a mental illness or disability. ESAs do not qualify as service animals according to federal law, but there are some special allowances made for them. They are eligible to live in “No pet” housing, or if there is a deposit or additional pet rent to live in a home, these must be waived, although owners of ESAs are still accountable for any damage caused by their animals. An ESA can also travel with its owner in the cabin of an airplane. ESAs require no special training. They need only be quiet and housebroken. If your doctor or psychiatrist determines that you will benefit from living with an ESA, she can sign a certificate or prescription for you.
To learn more, go to Emotional Support Animals.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are special pets who work as a team with their owner-handlers. These animals—usually dogs—visit hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities to provide comfort and to interact in safe, non-threatening ways with people who are elderly, ill, or disabled.
For more information, see Therapy Dog Organizations.

Helper Monkeys

For people with mobility limitations, such as spinal cord injuries, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, or amputations, Capuchin Monkeys can be wonderful service animals. They have excellent fine motor skills and, like humans, they have hair instead of fur, eliminating allergy problems. Monkeys can be trained to help with things like using power buttons, turning pages, reaching for out-of-reach items. They are affectionate and small, and they live for up to 40 years.
The organization Helping Hands Monkey Helpers has been training monkeys and providing them free of charge since 1979.

Cost

A service animal can sometimes be expensive. Some families raise money for the cost of the service dog. Some find organizations that provide assistance, or trainers that provide service animals at no or low cost. There are also scholarships for training. Another thing to consider is the cost of the food and veterinary care for the service animal. Below are a few resources for funding opportunities. To find more, search "service dog scholarships" or "no cost service dogs."
Little Angels Service Dogs has a goal to provide all dogs at no cost to the handler with disabilities.
Autism Assistance Dogs list of funding resources.
Canine Companions for Independence - Southwest Region provides a variety of assistance dog programs for people with disabilities or individuals who work with people with disabilities free of charge. CCI’s goal is to teach clients how to successfully manage and utilize these highly trained dogs.
Service Dogs for America partners with foundations to provide extra funding for a service dog for individuals with special needs.
Genesis Service Dogs is a nonprofit corporation that provides service dogs free of charge to qualified people with disabilities.

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

United States Service Dog Registry
The US Service Dog Registry represents the most democratic realization of an assistance animal registry and training and behavior standards agreement to date.

ADA Requirements for Service Animals
The revised ADA Requirements for Service Animals, as of March 2011.

Services

Assistive Technology

See all Assistive Technology services providers (104) in our database.

For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.

Authors

Author: Tina Persels - 1/2014
Reviewing Authors: Shena McAuliffe, MFA - 1/2014
Gina Pola-Money - 1/2014
Content Last Updated: 2/2014