Working dogs and public access
Service dogs, therapy dogs, seizure response dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, diabetes alert dogs, emotional support dogs – the list of working dogs goes on and on! What’s the difference, and does it matter?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines assistance (service) dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA further clarifies that the “work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
The ADA also allows assistance dogs access to any area where the public is permitted. This includes but is not limited to restaurants, grocery stores, places of business, theaters, hotels, public transportation, parks and shopping malls.
Service dogs provide physical assistance and are trained to perform tasks such as picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors, getting help, turning light switches on and off and pulling manual wheelchairs. Service dogs also assist individuals with mobility impairments; these dogs wear a special balance harness to provide stability and assist in transfers (for example, getting out of chairs or vehicles).
Seizure response dogs are trained to provide assistance once a seizure occurs; a dog may be trained to call 911 by pushing on a large button on the floor with his front paws. Often seizure response dogs learn to alert their owner before the seizure occurs, allowing the individual to prepare and get to a safe place.
Other common types of assistance dogs include guide dogs (Seeing Eye dogs), hearing dogs (dogs for the deaf) and diabetes alert dogs.
Some emotional support dogs also fall into the assistance dog category; the ADA makes a differentiation between psychiatric and emotional support assistance dogs. If a dog performs a specific physical task that would prevent an anxiety attack to occur, this dog qualifies as an assistance (psychiatric) dog. A dog whose mere presence provides comfort (emotional support) would not.
There is no one agency that certifies assistance dogs. Most assistance dog organizations, particularly the larger ones such as Canine Assistants or Canine Companions for Independence, have their own certification process. An individual may also train his own assistance dog
Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to multiple individuals in various environments. They do not just help or work with one specific person.
Therapy dogs are used in therapeutic environments. Reading programs are popular in schools and libraries and can assist children with learning disabilities. Individuals (particularly children) undergoing physical therapy are encouraged to move by exercising with, walking, petting or grooming a dog.
Therapy dogs can also help reduce stress with residents in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and memory care facilities; they also provide comfort to victims of accidents, crimes and natural disasters.
As with assistance dogs, there is no one agency that certifies therapy dogs. Therapy teams can operate independently or as part of a larger organization. The advantage of becoming affiliated with an established organization is that these organizations provide training, access to service opportunities, assistance in establishing new programs and most importantly, liability insurance.
One key difference between assistance and therapy dogs is public access. Assistance dogs are allowed public access by law; therapy dogs are not.
Therapy dogs do not have the same legal designation as assistance dogs and therefore are not granted legal public access. Therapy dogs must be invited into public places to perform their therapy work.
Assistance dogs are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act which allows access to assistance animals in any area where the public is permitted. This includes but is not limited to restaurants, grocery stores, places of business, theaters, hotels, public transportation, parks and shopping malls.
The DOT’s Air Carrier Access Act allows individuals with disabilities to travel with their assistance dogs by air.
The DOJ/HUD Fair Housing Act and Federal Rehabilitation Act ensures that assistance animals may live in housing designated as “no pets allowed.”
One of the biggest misunderstandings is that an assistance/service dog can also be a therapy dog and vice-versa. Assistance dogs perform specific tasks for their person often without being given a cue because of the close relationship and bond they have. Using a highly-trained service dog to also do therapy dog work would negatively affect the dog’s ability to do the job he was trained to do.