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The Facts on Real Service Dogs

The phone rang.

“Hello, I wanted to find out how get my dog certified as a service dog.”

As a professional private service dog trainer, I’ve received this call many times. One of the first questions I always ask is, “What tasks do you need your dog to do for you?”

Sometimes the caller’s answer is, “I need my dog to open doors; push buttons and retrieve things I drop.” Or, “I’m not totally sure, but I was hoping our dog can help my autistic child.” Or perhaps, “I need a psychiatric service dog to help me in public with anxiety and panic attacks.”

But other times the caller can’t think of any tasks. And finally, the person will say, “Well, I just want to get him certified so I can take him more places with me.” This person obviously doesn’t have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. What he or she really wants is what’s commonly called a “fake service dog.”

When a person just wants to take his or her pet dog into stores and restaurants and tries to pass off that pet as a service animal, not only does it violate federal law, but it also creates problems. These fake service dogs are often poorly trained, ill behaved, and badly handled in public. Based on the calls we receive, this has become a real problem.

What are the ADA requirements for a “real” service dog? First, the person must have a legitimate disability—a condition that limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, etc. Second, the dog must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks to benefit a person with a disability.

If a person doesn’t have a disability as defined by the ADA, the person doesn’t qualify for a service dog. If the dog isn’t trained to do work or perform tasks to benefit a person with a disability, the dog doesn’t qualify either. Both requirements need to be met. Passing a pet dog off as a service dog is a violation of federal law.

Most people have seen service dogs out in public where they usually wear a harness or a vest. They assist people with disabilities in a wide variety of ways. Dogs helping kids with autism or assisting people with diabetes or PTSD have become much more common. But there are still a lot of misconceptions. One of those misconceptions has to do with “certification.”

Does a service/assistance dog need some sort of “official certification?” Contrary to popular belief, there is no national or state certification for these dogs (with the exception of guide dogs in California). Even though various programs will “certify” their graduating teams, and may provide them with a vest or ID card, all the law requires for public access is the person’s “credible verbal assurance” that their dog is a service animal and not a pet. Many feel this makes it easier for “fake service dogs.” Eventually, some sort of universally approved service dog certification may be required.

One way to obtain a service dog is to apply to a reputable nonprofit organization like Canine Companions for Independence or Guide Dogs for the Blind, which are both in the San Francisco Bay Area. CCI has trained and placed over 5,000 skilled companions, service dogs, and hearing dogs since its founding in 1975; Guide Dogs for the Blind has graduated about 14,000 teams since 1942, according to GuideStar.

Can you train your own dog? Is it possible your dog could have the potential to become a successful service dog? Maybe. Can a private trainer help you find and train a service dog? Perhaps. But you have to do your homework, which means you need a qualified professional trainer. You need to find a trainer with lots of experience training dogs to assist people with disabilities. This isn’t always an easy task—even with an online search. Many trainers have good intentions but lack the right experience. Most experienced pet dog trainers don’t know how to select, train, or place service dogs. So be thorough and careful.

It’s your job to evaluate the trainer’s qualifications. You have to become an educated consumer. Do your research. Ask questions. Find out about a prospective trainer’s background and experience. Learn how many service dogs have they trained and placed, and ask for referrals and talk to them to see how the service dog turned out.

Be sure you feel comfortable with this person and his capabilities. Does he do boarding and training or private lessons or both? Talk about what beneficial tasks you think a dog can do to assist you. The trainer should be able to provide input on what is realistic and what isn’t.

When it comes to evaluating your own dog’s service dog potential, that’s tricky. If you already have a dog, be sure the trainer does a thorough evaluation of the dog’s temperament and aptitude for becoming a successful service dog. Most pets are not suitable. The right dog should be confident and appropriate, friendly, and highly trainable, with no significant fear or aggression. No excuses—you both want to be sure the dog is truly suitable for this type of training.

Let the trainer assist you in your search for the “right dog.” Sources can range from a shelter or a rescue dog, or you might be more interested in getting a puppy or an adult dog from a breeder. Your trainer can help guide you through the process of finding the right dog for you.

But even if you find your “ideal dog,” your success still depends on receiving “the right” training and handler instruction, plus excellent follow-up support after you have the dog.

Does this all seem like a daunting task, full of potential pitfalls? Yes, it can be challenging. A deficiency in any of the areas may mean failure. The wrong dog, the wrong trainer, the wrong training, or the wrong handler instruction won’t lead to success. Yes, it definitely can all work out, but don’t try to do it all yourself. You’ll need expert advice and assistance along the way. Done correctly, the end result is a person with a richer, more independent life, accompanied by a happy, loving dog that made it all possible.

D. Glenn Martyn serves as executive director of The Hearing Dog Program in San Francisco. He also trains service dogs in the Bay Area through his business,
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