Where would the world be without service animals? Many people rely on these animals, but less than 2% of the 43 million Americans with disabilities have them (Service Dog Central and Share America). There are between 387,000 (Service Dog Central) and 500,000 (Share America) service dogs in the U.S. saving and enriching lives. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has had a significant impact resulting in service animals playing a valuable and critical role in assisting people with a variety disabilities.
The ADA states that state and local governments, business and non-profit organizations must allow service animals which are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” (Department of Justice), but religious places and commercial airlines do not have to follow the ADA.
The ADA requires that these animals must be house trained, have “four on the floor” (must stay on the ground) (Ollove), be harnessed/leashed/tethered unless these interfere with animal’s work. Owners of service animals do not require any identification.
However, service dogs are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules as other dogs.
Surprisingly, by law there is no certification or professional training required for a service dog. Only half of puppies who begin training become service dogs (Tagliaferro). Some of these dogs have been able to learn as many as 90 commands (Tagliaferro). Training can take between 18 months (Service Dogs of America) and three years (Murray) to finish, and the cost is estimated between $25,000 (Service Dogs of America) to $40,000 (Olleve).
Service animals can be of any breed (Johnson), but the most common breeds are labrador retriever, golden retriever, German shepherd, and to a lesser extent poodle, papillon, doberman pinscher, Australian shepherd, and boxer (Murray).
Miniature horses were initially included as a service animal in the ADA. Even though No governing agency is responsible for service dogs, however, many, mostly non-profit agencies support and assist in training. These agencies include Some are Please Don’t Pet Me, Pawsitivity, Dogs for Diabetics, Service Dogs of America, International Hearing Dog, Inc and the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (Service Dog Certification).
Two other groups of animals which help people but are not strictly service animals as defined by the ADA are law enforcement and comfort animals. Law enforcement animals are most commonly German shepherds but can also be golden retrievers, labradors, beagles, and horses. Agencies that use law enforcement dogs include police and sheriff departments, arson investigators, US Department of Customs, US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Corrections, Department of Homeland Security, US Immigration and Naturalization Service, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Law enforcement animals and their potential handlers are highly trained. Most of these dogs come from shelters, pounds, or are donated. Their sense of smell is one of their most important attributes in law enforcement.
The second type of animal helping people outside of the ADA is emotional support animals, also known as comfort animals. In general, they help people with less severe disabilities. Types of comfort animals are varied, and in addition to dogs, include cats, mice/rats, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs, mini potbelly pigs, ferrets, monkeys, dolphins, parrots, and even boa constrictors (Pate and Dickinson). Emotional support animals play a less defined role than ADA service or law enforcement animals. They most commonly help people with psychological disabilities and provide comfort, compassion, aid, affection, companionship, and improved the quality of life.
Generally, these animals do not undergo any specialized training. Much controversy has arisen with the use of emotional support animals acting as service animals, resulting in local and state legislation (Olleve). The “rise of fake service dogs” (Q13Fox) has resulted in approximately 19 states initiating laws against using pets or comfort animals as services animals (USA Today). However, many think the “laws are largely symbolic” (Ollove).
Service animals benefit many physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of a person’s life as well as society. Four main benefits of service animals are that they help individuals achieve greater Independence and require less assistance from other people, provide greater physical functioning, reduce medical and support services, and lower medical costs to individuals and society. They achieve the benefits through five areas of specialization (USA Service Dogs). Some of the services provided in these areas of specialization are for basic tasks and others for emergency situations.
The first area of specialization is providing physical support to people who use braces, have mobility issues, or are wheelchair bound. These animals assist with balance, retrieve items, open and close doors, help owners get up from a seat, climb stairs, and assist in daily challenges. Some animals can even pull a wheelchair. The second are is seizure response in which service animals let the human know if they are about to have a seizure, retrieve medicine, and/or find help. A third area of assistance is providing lifesaving medical and allergy alerts to patients with a range of conditions.
For example, the service animal alerts their owner when they smell an allergen that their owner may not be able to see or know is present. Specific medical alerts service animals can even detect low blood sugar, and recognize heart abnormalities signaling a heart attack. A service dog can also bring a phone for a 911 call or alert others that its owner is in need of help.
The fourth area of service is for those requiring medical, visual,or hearing assistance. The blind use their service animal to guide them, and let them know if there is a step, curb, or obstacle. The deaf are alerted if there is a sound they need to know such as the doorbell, a car, knocking, or a phone ringing. Finally, service animals also provide support in a variety of psychiatric conditions or Autism. These dogs assist their owners with depression, anxiety, or PTSD to help them calm down and cope with stressful situations using tactile and deep pressure stimulation. For example, they guide disoriented handlers, provide tactile stimulation, search a room, and interrupt or redirect behavior.
As a result of ADA guidelines, service animals play a valuable and critical role in assisting people with a variety disabilities. Service animals benefit many physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of a person’s life. Four main areas where service animals are in achieving greater independence and requiring less assistance, providing greater physical functioning, reducing medical and support services, and lowering medical costs to individuals and society. Service animals play a significant role in doing daily tasks and helping in emergency situations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. But there are millions people who would benefit and are on waiting lists for these animals. Service animals indirectly help all of us not just those with disabilities.