September is National Service Dog Awareness Month and if you've ever wondered what a Service Dog really is - now is your chance to find out.Have you ever been curious about that handsome German Shepherd in the red vest walking steadily beside the woman in a wheelchair at the local grocery store? Or contemplated the sweet Golden Retriever in a harness that walks patiently alongside the elderly gentleman on his way to the bus stop and guides him up the steps? Or pondered about the little fluffy Poodle in a pink rhinestone collar that sits in the lap of a middle aged woman at your favorite restaurant? What could these dogs all have in common and what do they really do anyway?
To start with these dogs could very well all be service dogs. Many people don't know what a service dog actually is or what their purpose is and a lot has changed since the days of the seeing-eye-dog. So before we begin our fascinating discovery about the secret world of service dogs, a little explanation is called for. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Seems simple enough, right? There really is much more to know so take a look at these next amazing facts about service dogs.
1. A Service Dog can go almost anywhere.
Public facilities and businesses must permit service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. In addition to public access, service dogs can fly on airplanes free of charge as long as they can fit under the seat with their owner and rental properties and hotels must allow service dogs to stay at no extra cost. Even Air BNB's must permit service dogs, however with the exception of medical reasons such as allergies. Now having said all that, a service dog must be well trained and behaved. If a service dog is barking non-stop at his favorite movie, Scoob!, or stealing tasty morsels off patron's plates at a restaurant, the business owners may request that the dog is either controlled or removed. Just remember, the purpose of a service dog is to better the quality of life, not disturb it.
2. A Service Dog does not need to wear a service vest.
By law, Service Dogs are NOT required to wear a specially marked vest or any identifying tags, nor can they be asked to provide any proof. So that cute little poodle wearing the blinged out collar sitting quietly on the middle aged woman's lap at the restaurant is very possibly a service dog. If that cute little poodle starts barking and jumping onto the table it might be difficult to know how to approach the situation. As stated by the ADA, only two questions can be asked of a service dog: (1) Is the dog required because of a disability? and (2) What task has the dog been trained to perform? Only specific training (and lots of it) makes a dog a Service Dog and grants it access rights when with it's partnered person.
3. A Service Dog can fulfill a LOT of purposes.
Remember that cute little blinged out, barking poodle in the restaurant? Perhaps barking and jumping up IS the trained service behavior... Service Dogs are able to be trained to detect life threatening medical issues such as seizures, diabetic crashes or even certain allergens and to 'call out' for help. There's a lot to consider when a service dog is on the scene. The three main types of Assistance Dogs are Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs and Service Dogs. Guide and Hearing are fairly self explanatory, but the Service Dog category involves a wide variety of purposes. There are mobility dogs that assist individuals in wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities. Mental health dogs provide support for children and adults with Autism or social anxiety issues, also those suffering from PTSD, such as veterans. Scent dogs often include those trained for the medical alert tasks mentioned earlier providing life saving warnings to people with epilepsy, diabetes or allergies. It's pretty amazing to see a trained service dog in action - turning on lights, opening doors, retrieving and carrying objects, providing emotional support and even calling 911!
4. A Service Dog is an exceptionally well trained work animal.
All of these stellar tasks that Service Dogs are trained to perform take time and dedication. There are different ways to train a service dog, but in general it takes between 6 months and 2 years depending on the type of assistance and tasks required. Some organizations fully train the dogs ahead of time with dedicated trainers and foster homes, while others pair up a dog and person at the beginning of their training. Sometimes there are costs involved in acquiring a service dog and some companies provide the dog and training for free if you qualify. Typically the dog attends training classes weekly and continues to practice in-between sessions. One of the first tests a service dog is often required to pass is the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen certification. This is merely a first step to becoming a well behaved and good mannered dog in all situations.
5. A Service Dog that is unattended should be followed.
A couple of years ago, a Tumblr post written as a Service Dog PSA went viral after a young woman had fallen and her vested service dog went off alone in search of help. It turned out to be a false alarm and that she was not badly hurt, but she was shocked to notice that people were ignoring and even shooing her dog away. Tessa Connaughton's PSA post went viral from Tumblr to Twitter and was even aired on the Today Show. Her main message was “If a service dog without a person approaches you, it means the person is down and in need of help.” Most service dogs that are medical alert dogs will wear vests for the purpose of alerting attention, but some behaviors they might show while trying to get someone's attention are nudging you with their nose or paw or barking and whining. Some possible commands to let the dog know you are ready to help may be "What or where", "Find it", or "Show me". Always pay attention and follow the dog.
Many Service Dogs are rescued shelter dogs! Some Service Dogs organizations such as Soldier's Best Friend in Glendale, Arizona work together with animal shelters around the state to rescue and foster potential service dogs. So these lucky dogs that are trained to help improve other's lives are also given a second chance. That's a win-win situation!
Now you are caught up to speed about Service Dogs! If you or someone you know could benefit from being partnered with a Service Dog or an Emotional Support Dog, please seek out organizations in your area. If you are inspired to help this incredible cause there are many ways to be of service. Many Service Dog nonprofits accept donations, of course, but also host fundraisers and charity events. You can get more 'paws' on by becoming a foster parent for a puppy or young dog who is being evaluated or beginning training. Love Dog Republic is a proud promoter and supporter of Soldier's Best Friend - www.soldiersbestfriend.org - You could be too!
Photo Credit: Bryan Kinkade with Finnegan, a Service Dog in training at Soldier's Best Friend, Glendale, Arizona