Assistance Dogs for Dummies

Posted on November 16, 2009. Filed under: 4. Guest Bloggers | Tags: , , , , |

Don’t get steamed up, the title isn’t meant to be derogatory. I know most of the Petopia Bloggers are more intelligent than the average bear, but you’d be surprised how many real ‘dummies’ I meet on a fairly regular basis when out and about with my guide dog, Musket. A lot of people really don’t know much about Assistance Dogs, what they do, how they work, where they can go and how to act around them.

So for anyone who wants a quick course in Assistance Dogs 101, here goes.

I’ll be posting a short series of Tips on the basics, and I encourage, (even beg) bloggers to ask questions and add comments. If I miss something you want to know, please tell me.

First of all what is an Assistance Dog (AD)?

The legal definition by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is: ‘Any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.  Tasks typically performed by service animals include guiding people with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to the presence of intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair or retrieving dropped items.’

Simply put, they help someone with a disability to be more independent, safe and healthy. Musket’s job is easily defined. He’s my other set of eyes. I generally use the term ‘Assistance Dog.’ A ‘Service’ Dog’ is a specific type, which performs physical tasks. Service, Guide, Psychiatric Hearing Alert or Signal Dogs are types of Assistance dogs.

A Service Dog for someone with mobility or manipulative impairment may pull a wheelchair, pick up dropped objects, maintain their balance or do any of a hundred other physical tasks. An Alert Dog has the ability to sense an oncoming seizure, diabetic shock or even bipolar episode. There are dogs trained to help children with Autism, hearing impaired persons and even to call 911 on a special phone. Suffice to say Assistance Dogs, and in some cases horses, cats or monkeys are amazing, well-trained, well-behaved and intelligent animals.

Guide dogs have been around for almost a century. Guide dogs are well-known to the general public. But as mentioned above, many other trained Assistance animals are not familiar. In part this is due to what is known as a ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ disability. Being blind or using a wheelchair is pretty obvious, but a person who’s hearing impaired or bipolar, has diabetes or a traumatic brain injury might not be recognized as having a disability, yet many of them have animals to help them.

Any place a person can go, an Assistance dog may go. It’s not my intention to detail the issue here but I’ll mention a few examples. Restaurants, stores, banks, offices, churches, libraries, theaters, parks, beaches, recreation areas, public transportation, airlines, trains and more. The only places they are not permitted is in sterile areas like hospital ICUs, operating rooms or food handling areas in restaurant kitchens, which is a relief to me and an annoyance to Musket.

In my case, and that of anyone with an obvious disability, the Assistance dog is not often challenged. I say ‘not often’ because it does happen. When someone with an ‘invisible’ disability has an Assistance animal, the likelihood of a challenge or misunderstanding increases. In my work, I received dozens of calls a month from both people who were refused access to a public place because of their dog, and business owners who asked if a dog must be allowed in their place of business. Often the issue was easily resolved with a little judicious mediation. I informed both parties of their rights and the rights of the other according to the law. If a dog was doing its job to assist their owner in a manner directly involving their disability, then it was an Assistance dog. The business had to allow access, even if they didn’t understand the disability or permit pets.

Assistance dogs are NOT pets. The business may ask if it is a service or Assistance dog, and if it helped with the disability, but no more. Anything beyond that is an invasion of privacy. For instance, I could be asked if Musket was a guide dog and if he was working for me. If I said yes, that’s as far as it needed to go. They couldn’t ask my disability. They also can’t demand proof of the disability. The law does not require proof of disability, or of the dog’s training. Musket wears the California Assistance Dog ID tag, but again, it’s not required. In some cases, the dog may wear a harness or cape but some people don’t want or need it. A hearing alert dog doesn’t need a harness.

In the matter of the rights of the business, the dividing line is the behavior of the dog. If the dog is well-behaved, calm, non-aggressive and sanitary, there is no reason it couldn’t be with their owner in any public place. If on the other hand it is barking, being aggressive, unsanitary, disruptive and not under control, then the business has the right to ask the owner to either control the animal or leave. An owner must show respect for the rights of the business and other patrons. Most of the situations could be alleviated with common sense and reason. Both parties should know the law.

Coming Soon: DOs and DON’Ts in meeting Assistance Dogs.

Mark Carlson


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One Response to “Assistance Dogs for Dummies”

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Thanks for an excellent start. So no adverse comments or “include this” for now. My only opinion this far is this needs broader publication.


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