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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, Golden Retrievers, and in recent years American Pit Bull Terriers 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" however this refers to a specific organization and not to all Guide Dogs.
In the United States, the Code of Federal Regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act which took effect as of March 15, 2011 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. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition."
This revised definition excludes all comfort animals, which are pets that owners keep with them for emotional reasons. (For example, the owner may feel calmer when he or she is near the pet). Unlike a service animal, a comfort animal is not 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, or similar disability-related tasks. A service dog may still provide help to people with 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.
Most owners expect their service dogs to be treated as a working animal while in public. The health and safety of their 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.
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 be helping. 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.
Also, there is owner training, in which the disabled person does the training, from start to finish, without the help of a program. Not all SDs are program dogs.
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. 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, as well as owner training being significantly less expensive than professional training. This is permitted in some countries, such as the U.S., but not in all. 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, 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 or who needs a cross-disability dog, this can be a very useful option.
Public access rights of owners of service dogs vary according to country and region.
If you have a guide dog or service animal you 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 a person with 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 misnomer 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. 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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