Last week, I went through the legally recognized types of working dogs for people with disabilities in the article, What Constitutes a Service Animal? (Edit: Thank you, Sarah, for saving me from my poorly punctuated fate.) If you’re not familiar with the laws regarding Service Animals, I’d strongly encourage you to read it before continuing, or you might wind up very confused.
In that article, I didn’t so much address their roles as their definitions, so I promised to come back with an article that does. It’s important to know that, since there’s really not a standardized system, there also aren’t any standardized terms, save for those few that are used in the laws. The different kinds of Service and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) that I’m going to talk about here are informal names, and they might vary from organization to organization or person to person.
For example, Canine Companions for Independence and NEADs both provide dogs that fall into the Service and Emotional Support Animal categories. At CCI, ESAs are called Facility Dogs and are only placed with people who intend to use them at work. At NEADS, they’re called Service Dogs for Classroom, Therapy, & Ministry. It’s all very confusing. That said, I’m trying to cut people some slack when they ask if Bright’s a Guide Dog and I say, “No, she’s an Assistance Dog,” and they have no idea what I mean.
This is not an exhaustive list, and my definitions might even differ from what you’ve heard before. Just bear with me. We’re finally learning that dogs can do jobs other than guide; the list of ways canines can help folks with disabilities is endless, from sensing physiological changes associated with diabetes to alerting to environmental sounds and everything in between. There’s a dog for that.
I could preface all day long, but I think I’ll just get down to it.
Assistance Dogs is a term sometimes used synonymously with Service Dogs, but is also used to describe dogs with more general duties such as retrieving dropped items, pulling wheelchairs, carrying items, and doing balance work. In the world of Canine Companions for Independence, they’re called Service Teams and Skilled Companions.
Who they help: Mostly people with physical disabilities. Their skills are usually focused on making the handler more independent by doing, reaching, and carrying things that he or she is unable to.
Skills: Retrieving dropped items, assisting with dressing and undressing, opening and closing doors and drawers, bracing for balance, pulling wheelchairs, carrying items, and more.
Where they can go: Assistance Dogs have full public access.
Hearing Dogs, sometimes referred to as Service Dogs for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, alert people to sounds in the environment.
Who they help: People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
Skills: Hearing Dogs’ skills are based on performing a behavior to alert their handlers to sounds such as baby monitors, doorbells, phones, a person approaching from behind, a dropped item hitting the ground, and even the handler’s name being called.
Where they can go: Hearing Dogs have full public access.
Medical Alert Dogs can actually be broken down into several subcategories including Diabetes Alert, Seizure Alert, Allergy Alert, and more.
Who they help: People with illnesses that cause a physiological change in the body.
Skills: Medical Alert Dogs can be taught to perform a behavior when they notice changes in their handlers bodies. For example, they can smell the chemical changes that happen in the body when blood sugar is low, and can perform a skill to alert that there’s a problem before a crash actually happens. The same goes for seizures, allergies, narcolepsy, and more. Dogs can also be trained to remind handlers to take medications at certain times.
Edit: The most common philosophy is that dogs must be inclined to alert naturally; it’s not a skill that can be taught, but the behavior they display to do the alert can be modified in some cases. It should be noted, however that they still require a great deal of obedience training.
Where they can go: Medical Alert Dogs have full public access.
Psychiatric Assistance Dogs perform a skill or skills to mitigate the effects of a psychiatric disability, such as Anxiety Disorder or PTSD.
Who they help: People with mental illnesses.
Skills: Grounding the handler by licking or applying physical pressure during an episode or attack, reminding the handler to take medications and sometimes even retrieving them, asking for help from others when the handler is unable to, waking the handler up from nightmares, and more.
Where they can go: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Fair Housing Act (FHA), they have full access, but the Air Carriers Act (ACA) distinguishes them from Service Animals and requires more specific documentation for them than for dogs assisting people with physical disabilities.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are often confused with Psychiatric Service Dogs, but the primary difference is that ESAs don’t require any training and aren’t covered by the ADA. If your dog makes you feel more comfortable than you do otherwise, and your medical provider states that it helps you to cope with a mental illness, then it’s an ESA.
Who they help: People with mental illnesses.
Skills: None required.
Where they can go: ESAs have no public access under the ADA, but are covered by the FHA and the ACA with necessary documentation.
Therapy Dogs are probably the most commonly misunderstood type of working dog. They are a type of ESA, not a Service Dog, and their purpose is very different. Generally, they’re personal pets, certified under an organization like Pet Partners, who administers a test similar to the Good Canine Citizen Test. Many institutions have pet therapy programs, and most require the owner to have the dog certified by the organization that they recommend.
Who they help: Students at schools, patients in hospitals and treatment centers, residents in nursing homes, and more.
Skills: Gentle greeting, socializing appropriately with children, “show off” skills, walking well on a leash, consistent recalls, etc.
Where they can go: Therapy dogs don’t have any coverage under the ADA, so they’re not allowed in public unless expressly invited, for example, to a hospital to visit patients, a nursing home to keep residents company, etc. If they’re not meant to support the handler emotionally and the handler doesn’t have any kind of mental illness, they do not qualify under the FHA, and the ACA is also pretty prohibitive, but sometimes special arrangements can be made to get the dog to its workplace.
Facility Dogs are placed with individuals who are their primary caretakers and are employed at a business or agency that has use for them. They do everything from sitting with victims of crimes during their forensic interviews to accompanying people on the stand in court when they have to testify, to sitting in on mental health professionals’ sessions with patients, and more. They’re different from Therapy Dogs in that they’re trained to do tasks to assist people with the types of disabilities that the professional works with.
Who they help: Generally, people receiving the services of whatever organization the dog works for.
Skills: Licking and applying pressure on command, receiving belly rubs, and more.
Where they can go: The law doesn’t address them specifically, but because they’re trained to assist a person with a disability, they can have public access under very specific circumstances. They fall into almost the same category as Therapy Dogs, so no public access except when invited, or they meet the condition of providing a service to a person with a disability, and they have no explicit coverage under the FHA or ACA.
Well, that was a mouthful.
That’s tons of information, I know. And what’s worse, it will probably change in the future. In the meantime, I really hope it helps you to navigate the confusing and elusive world of working dogs.
Also, notice, I didn’t talk about state laws or puppies in training. Everything mentioned in this article relates to adult working dogs and only federal laws. More to come.