Service-assistance and therapy dogs are often "lumped" together, however the respective missions that these dogs fulfill are quite different.
Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act states: "A service animal means 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." These tasks can include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a deaf person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, turning on light switches or pressing elevator buttons.
The following are examples of "service animals" that meet the ADA's criterion:
•Guide Dog or Seeing Eye Dog: serves as a travel tool for severely visually impaired or blind people.
•Hearing or Signal Dog: alerts a significantly hearing impaired or deaf person.
•Psychiatric Service Dog: detects the onset of psychiatric episodes and reduces their effects. Other tasks may include reminding the handler to take medication, conducting room searches, safety checks or turning on lights for individuals with post-traumatica stress disorder, interrupting self-mutilation episodes and keeping disoriented people from danger.
•SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog): assists a person with autism. This dog alerts the person to stop producing repeated distracting movements like hand flapping.
•Seizure Response Dogs: assist people with seizure disorders by standing guard during the seizure or seeking help. Some dogs are able to predict seizures and warn people before they start so they can move to a safe place to sit down.
Service dogs usually receive training provided by nonprofit organizations like Canine Companions for Independence and Guide Dogs for the Blind that have their own breeding programs with the goal of producing dogs that are physically and mentally sound so they can perform specialized skills to improve the quality of life for disabled individuals. These and similar organizations rely on volunteer "puppy raisers" to provide the pups with living in a home environment, manners and basic obedience training, and socialization in a community setting for about 18 months The dogs then return to the organizations' training centers where professional instructors refine the dogs' skills and teach them advanced commands. It takes two years to prepare each dog for a life of service. Eventually they will be matched, trained and graduate with their disabled human partners whose lives will change forever. Service dogs, by law, are not required to wear vests and are regarded as working animals — not pets.
Therapy Dogs are pets that live with their owner-handlers, are evaluated by and registered with organizations like Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, Pets on Wheels and Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services. These organizations require that therapy dog candidates must: be calm and comfortable with other dogs, be at least 1 year old, have lived with the owner for at least six months, perform basic obedience skills with consistency, remain calm when being handled by different people, and tolerate the sights, sounds and smells and equipment found in nursing home and hospital settings. The dogs must receive annual health certificates completed by veterinarians to confirm that all inoculations are current and show that the dog is healthy and free of internal and external parasites. This is required for insurance coverage from the therapy dog registry organizations. Usually identification cards are issued for the handlers and tags and sometimes vests (showing the therapy organization's logo) are worn by the dogs during every visitation. Dogs must be bathed prior to all visitations because they may be interacting with people who may have weakened immune systems. Therapy dogs also visit schools and libraries where they serve as "reader dogs" to increase children's self-confidence while they read to their canine listeners.
Emotional Support Animals may or may not be specifically trained, but provide comfort for people with documented mental health issues.
Therapy and emotional dogs are not regarded as service animals under the ADA and a doctor's letter does not turn an animal into a service animal
Unfortunately, there are people who pass their untrained pet dogs off as service dogs so they can keep their pets with them to take advantage of the "perks" the ADA provides to service dogs, like access to public places (stores, malls, restaurants) and public transportation. All that's needed is to turn on a computer, complete an application and purchase an ID and vest using a credit card from one of numerous for-profit service dog registries listed on the Internet.
According to the ADA, business owners can legally ask two questions when a dog and owner enters a business that might otherwise prohibit dogs: "Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?" and "What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?" Business owners also have the right to request that a dog be removed from the premises if it exhibits threatening behavior, is out of control, or is not housebroken. Such behaviors are hints that the dog is a fake and leaves lasting memories for employees when legitimate service dogs enter businesses.
Under the ADA, it is a federal crime to use a phony service dog, and close to 20 states have laws against service animal misrepresentation. In 2015, Colorado passed a law making the intentional misrepresentation of an assistance animal as an offense. That same year Florida passed a law that classifies misrepresenting a dog as a service animal as a second-degree misdemeanor and those caught face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. This year, Virginia passed a law that makes it a misdemeanor to pass off pets as service animals. If caught, the owner can face a maximum fine of $250.
Those who engage in this illegal practice are damaging the image of legitimate service dogs.
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Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.