The Americans With Disabilities Act has a broad definition of service dogs: Any dog who performs a service for someone, be it the dog's owner or a disabled person who has been granted a dog by an organization that raises and trains them. Service dogs help people with many disabilities.
Kinds of Services
Dogs were first pressed into service to assist blind veterans after World War I; first German shepherd dogs, then golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers were trained as seeing-eye dogs. Other programs began springing up to teach dogs to alert the deaf to sounds. Later, dogs were incorporated to help the disabled with daily living by performing acts the person couldn't, such as picking up a set of dropped keys or opening a door. All these dogs shared several characteristics: intelligence, strength, willingness to learn and desire to please.
Kinds of Dogs
In 2011, the ADA revised its definition of service dog to include not only dogs who assisted those with obvious disabilities, but also those with unseen disabilities such as seizure disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders or cardiac arrhythmia. For service dogs to be effective, in addition to intelligence and congeniality, they also must be highly intuitive. This is critical to their function as a service dog. Minor electrical changes in the heart or brain are impossible for humans to detect without a machine, but some dogs are able to detect these impulses and give the patient enough warning to don a helmet or take a pill. While physical strength may be imperative for dogs performing services involving pulling a wheelchair or assisting a person who has fallen, small dogs are capable of the intensity of focus required to assist someone with an unseen problem.
The ADA awarded people with disabilities some hard-won liberties and freedoms. As Americans, they always had to right to move about freely, but when the presence of a dog is necessary for mobility, some issues arise due to bias, allergies, health laws and preference. Proprietors of restaurants, retail shops, hotels and other public places were slow to embrace the law. Many successfully were sued because they would not allow a service dog into their establishment. The revised law addressed this problem by mandating that a service dog be kept under control at all times, not bark or create a nuisance to those around him and be on a leash unless it interferes with his job. Required characteristics of service dogs under the law include good behavior, discipline, training and acceptance of strangers. If they are disruptive or growl at strangers, they must be removed from the premises.
Grooming and Training
In addition to exemplary behavior, service dogs must be well-groomed and free of internal and external parasites. Heavy-coated dogs must be brushed daily to avoid leaving hair for others to clean up. Service dogs must be fully and reliably house-trained. They must not beg for food, nor may they pick up food that has been dropped on the floor. It's in a dog's nature to be vigilant and this instinct must be removed by socializing and training. In the event of an emergency, first responders must be able to assist the disabled person without interference from a protective dog.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.