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A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities including visual difficulties, hearing impairments, mental illness, seizures, diabetes, autism, and more.
Desirable character traits in service animals typically include good temperament or psychological make-up (including biddability and trainability) and good health (including physical structure and stamina). Service dogs are often trained and bred by service dog organizations. Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers are the most common breeds used as service dogs, but any breed or mix of breeds is capable of being a service dog, though few dogs have all of the health and temperament qualities needed. Such a dog may be called a "service dog" or an "assistance dog," depending largely on country. Occasionally they are incorrectly referred to as "Seeing Eye Dogs"; this, however, refers to a specific organization and not to all Guide Dogs.
In the United States, the applicable law covering places of public accommodation is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section issued "ADA 2010 Revised Requirements; Service Animals." It states that:
"Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."
This revised definition excludes all comfort animals, which are pets that owners keep with them solely for emotional reasons that do not ameliorate their symptoms of a recognized "disability"; animals that do ameliorate the conditions of a medical disability, however, such as animals that ameliorate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, are included in the definition. Unlike a service animal, a comfort animal is one that has not been trained to perform specific tasks directly related to the person's disability. Common tasks for service animals include flipping light switches, picking up dropped objects, alerting the person to an alarm, reducing the anxiety of a person with post-traumatic stress disorder by putting its head on the patient, or similar disability-related tasks. A service dog may still provide help people with emotions related to psychiatric disabilities, but the dog must be trained to perform specific actions, such as distracting the person when he becomes anxious or engages in stimming or other behaviors related to his disability.
While the ADA has narrowed the definition of service animals that are required to be permitted in places of public accommodation, other laws still provide broader definitions in other areas. For instance, the Department of Transportation's regulations enacting the Air Carrier Access Act permit "dogs and other service animals" to accompany passengers on commercial airlines. The Fair Housing Act also requires housing providers to permit service animals (including comfort and emotional support animals) without species restrictions in housing.
Because there is no certification of service animals in the United States, staff must take declaration of an animal's service status at face value, and furthermore are restricted in the questions they may ask about the animal:
When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.
"Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment." For safety reasons, a service dog handler should take care and common sense into account when deciding if a questionable place is a safe place to bring their service dog, and make other arrangements for assistance if it is unsafe for the dog to be present (such as some extremely loud concerts, behind the scenes at zoos, work areas with a lot of heavy machinery or dangerous chemicals, etc.).
In 2009, New York City paid a 65-year-old woman $10,000 to settle a federal lawsuit against it that it had violated the ADA by denying the woman with her service dog access to transportation with the dog. Two New York City policemen had given her a ticket for bringing her dog into a subway station.
In 2013, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) paid the same woman $150,000 to settle a federal lawsuit against the MTA that it had violated the ADA by its drivers, motormen, or conductors denying the woman access to transportation with the dog, or improperly demanding to see identification for her dog. The woman suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and partial hearing loss, according to her lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Federal Court. District Judge Sandra Townes ruled in 2013 that a jury could reasonably conclude that transit officials showed “deliberate indifference” by not responding to her complaints. A spokeswoman for the New York City Transit Authority said it would not take any remedial action in addition other than paying the settlement.
Most owners expect their service dogs to be treated as a medical device while in public. The health and safety of the owner may depend on the dog's ability to focus and resist distraction. Many service dogs are trained to avoid distraction when wearing their gear, but relax and are friendly when the gear is removed. An owner will expect to be asked for permission before another individual interacts with the dog. It is advised not to pet a service dog unless having asked the owner permission. Distracting a service dog is considered disruptive.
By definition, a service dog is a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of the dog's owner. Since each person experiences a disability differently and therefore has different needs for assistance, each dog is to some extent custom-trained for the individual it will help. For example, a dog meant to assist a person in a wheelchair might be taught to pick up dropped items, open and close doors, and turn on and off lights. A dog trained to assist a person who cannot see well might be taught to avoid obstacles.
Service dog puppies are often fostered by their programs to private families to be reared until they are old enough for advanced training. During this time, the puppies are socialized through extensive interactions with people of all kinds (with variations in age, gender, ethnicity, mode of dress, disability, etc.) as well as with other common domestic animals, especially other dogs. Puppies are also habituated by their foster families so that they become comfortable in a wide variety of situations. The foster families, called puppy raisers or puppy walkers, take responsibility for teaching the pup basic life skills common to any well-behaved dog including basic obedience and manners. As examples, puppies in training to be service dogs typically have careful toilet training because they can go so many places that other animals cannot; behaviors that make the dogs easy to be around are also taught, such as not begging or jumping up on people, waiting at doors, riding in cars, coming when called, sitting, lying down, staying in different positions, and walking politely on a leash.
In recent years, many organizations have involved inmates in prisons for some initial puppy training. There are pros and cons to this move. For example, without the responsibilities of making a living, paying bills, driving the kids, etc., inmates typically have more time to spend with the puppy. There is a lot of walking in prison, and inmate-raised puppies thus have more opportunities to walk on a loose leash. In contrast, the early socialization that is a must for puppies is limited in a prison: all men, or all women, all dressed the same, few if any children, and a lack of new and various scents. Cars, bicycles, skateboards, backpacks, cats, and many other distractions are rare to non-existent in prisons. Still, these programs have been a success on many fronts with the help of professionals, and some forethought on program implementation.
Puppies are periodically tested during the fostering period but are more thoroughly evaluated once they are returned to the training center, usually between 12 and 18 months of age. They are evaluated for temperament and health traits. Those not up to the standard are offered for adoption or are transferred to programs for other service dogs such as police or search and rescue. Generally, the family that fostered the puppy is given the first option to keep any pup that does not continue in the program.
The next stage is typically done by professional trainers with expertise in training dogs for particular disabilities. As examples, guide dogs will need skills different from dogs that work with developmentally disabled children. Core skills shared by all public access service dogs include proofing to work in spite of distractions and generalization to work in a variety of venues. All service dogs need to learn a working position, usually the heel position, which the dog is responsible for maintaining regardless of how the owner moves and whether or not a leash is dropped. They are taught to toilet only on command when working.
Core skills and tasks are generally taught during the same period when the dog is kept at the training center to work with professional service dog trainers. Another phase, called public access training, is proofing and generalization or teaching the dog to perform his duties without regard for distraction and in any environment. The Public Access Test establishes the criteria for a well-mannered Service Dog. It does not test the dog’s task-oriented skills—such as opening doors or carrying things to help its handler—but concentrates instead on the dog’s behavior in public. Advanced training can last six months to one year, but a number of organizations are working to decrease the length of this phase in order to increase the service dog's working period.
A growing number of people choose to train their own service dogs. This can be because existing programs do not answer their needs (for example, a dog that can help someone in a wheelchair who is also hard of hearing). It can also be because the disabled person wants to experience the dog's puppyhood, or because he or she already has a pet dog when the need for a service dog arises. This is permitted in some countries, such as the U.S., but not in all countries. Handlers with experience training advanced dogs may choose to train the dogs themselves, while others may employ a professional trainer or organization that accepts an owner's existing dog.
Program-trained dogs are matched with their future handler near the end of the training process. By this point, it is nearly certain the candidate dog will complete training and will become a service dog. Owner-trainers often start working with their puppies while they are very young, too young to be thoroughly evaluated. Owner-trainers whose puppies fail to measure up must deal with the emotional conflict of whether to re-home the dog or keep him as a pet.
Because most programs now breed their own puppies and raise them according to very carefully researched and planned guidelines, their success rates are relatively high. Owner-trainers, lacking the experience of the program trainers and not being able to manipulate the genetics or early neurological stimulation of the puppies, generally experience a lower success rate. However, getting a dog from a reputable breeder who breeds for temperament and soundness, performs early neurological stimulation on their puppies, and properly socializes the puppies before they go to their new owners can significantly improve the chance of success. Very few dogs in shelters will make it as service dogs due to behavior issues and lack of socialization.
However, for a person with the skill to train their own service dog, this option can make dogs of specific breeds available that would not be available through a program, and allows for greater customization of training. For a handler used to a certain set of command words, needs a cross-disability dog, or has sensory sensitivities to certain coat types, this can be a very useful option.
Public access rights of owners of service dogs vary according to country and region.
People with a guide dog or service animal are permitted to deduct the expenses related to the buying, training and maintenance of the dog or other animal. These are considered Medical Expenses and they are deductible in the United States). This includes expenses for food, grooming, and medical care. It is limited to guide dogs or service animals for people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, or another physical disability.
Disabled owners of service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which generally gives them the right to be accompanied by their service animal anywhere the general public is allowed. Additional federal laws protect people with disabilities partnered with service animals, as well as other types of assistance animals, from discrimination in housing (the Fair Housing Amendments Act) and on aircraft (the Air Carrier Access Act). Actually, the Air Carrier Access Act does not define "service animal" and it is a misconception that the ACAA provides a broader definition of the term over the ADA.
Under the ADA, businesses are permitted to deny access to service dogs that are not behaving properly. They may also be excluded if the presence of the animal constitutes a fundamental alteration of the business or poses a direct threat. Persons with service dogs are not required to pay any additional fees on account of the service dog, though the owner is responsible for any damages caused by the dog.
Service dogs may wear special vests or ID tags, but they are not a requirement of the ADA.
The typical working life of a service dog is usually eight to ten years, depending on the owner's needs and preferences.
Service dogs are free to act normally when they are not working. Typically, the animals are taught to identify work versus free time by whether or not they are wearing their gear—if, in fact, they wear gear. Exceptions to this rule may exist, such as a seizure alert dog, which must not ignore an impending seizure even when it is not wearing its gear. Nevertheless, just as with any other trained animal, working dogs must still obey commands even when they are off-duty. Because of the strict behavior expected from a working dog when it is on duty, many owners will usually not permit people to pet the animal, or are reluctant to remove gear on request (such as for security inspections.)
When a service dog retires, it may remain with his owner or a family member as a pet. If the owner is unable to care for him and a successor dog at the same time, he may be returned to the program for "re-homing." Typically, the family that raised it as a puppy is given the first opportunity to keep him as a pet. Others are adopted out to carefully screened homes. These dogs are highly desirable pets because of their manners and obedience training; waiting lists for such placements may sometimes be measured in years.
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