What Are Service Dogs Supposed to Do?

by Kathleen March
    The U.S. Postal Service has honored the guide dog.

    The U.S. Postal Service has honored the guide dog.

    Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images

    The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as "any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability, in order to mitigate the disability." Several categories of service dogs exist, and the tasks each type is supposed to perform are determined by the disability of the person he assists.

    Guide Dogs

    The guide dog assists a person who is completely or mostly visually impaired. The first type of service dog was the guide dog, known to some as "seeing eye" dog. Although previously this animal had assisted the blind; it was only after World War I that a formal training program was organized, in Germany to help war veterans.
    The tasks of a guide dog might include aiding his charge in moving about and alerting him or her to dangerous situations, such as approaching vehicles. The dog needs to be able to find and follow a clear path, stop at curbs and safely avoid obstacles. He works inside and outside the home and can retrieve dropped or misplaced objects.

    Service, Therapy, Emotional Support, Companion

    It is important to distinguish between service animals and companion animals. Service animals are working animals, not pets. "Emotional support animals" is a legal term for common domestic animals who provide therapeutic support to disabled or elderly owners through nonjudgmental companionship and affection. These animals are not trained to do specific tasks but must be reasonably well-behaved. Such animals are usually dogs. The benefits of having a companion animal -- a pet -- include: lower cholesterol, triglycerides and stress; increased physical activity; and more social interaction. However, a pet is not specifically trained to mitigate a disability.

    Other Types of Service Dogs

    A hearing dog assists a person with partial or total hearing impairment by alerting the person to sounds or to the presence of others, such as when the owner's name is called, the phone or doorbell rings, or a smoke detector goes off. An alert/response dog alerts an individual or others to a seizure or other serious medical condition. Another type of service dog assists a person whose mobility is impaired and lacks balance, stability or the ability to move about under his own power, such as getting in and out of a wheelchair or getting up after a fall.
    The tasks these dogs perform include retrieving items from the floor, manipulating light switches, helping to dress or remove clothing, providing support for walking, aiding with rolling over in bed, and opening and closing doors and drawers. They retrieve items such as medication, including from a refrigerator, among other tasks.
    The medical assistant dog assists persons with cognitive, autism, psychiatric or neurological disabilities. Typical owners have cancer, asthma or Alzheimer's, or are subject to seizures -- certain trained dogs can warn the owner before the seizure occurs. In some cases a dog is trained to move the person to a safe place and retrieve his medication. A psychiatric service dog provides therapeutic companionship to a person suffering from depression, panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD or agoraphobia, among other things.

    Rights and Responsibilities of Owners and the Public

    A service dog must be allowed access to public places. He must behave properly, without showing aggression, barking, whining or annoying the public by asking for food or attention. The handler must control him, and he will generally be on a leash. The public must allow the service dog to do his work and not distract him, pet him, talk to him or try to make eye contact. All service dogs have requirements that may include such things as being able to perform at least three tasks to assist with the disability; demonstrating basic obedience skills in response to voice or hand signals to sit, stay, lie down, walk beside the handler and come when called; walk calmly on tether; perform tasks in public; and lie quietly beside the handler without blocking passageways.

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    About the Author

    Kathleen March has been a writer for 40 years. A professor and translator of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician, she has studied several languages and uses them for travel and research. She enjoys medieval architecture and avant-garde poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous critical journals in the U.S. and Spain.

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