SD 101: Types of Service Dogs

by Jenna Clark

Many people recognize what a guide dog does or that a person in a wheelchair may need a service dog, but there are different types of service animals for people with various disabilities. In addition, not all service animals have public access rights under the American’s with Disabilities Act, which states that “a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual.“

There are also many types of service animals for people with a large variety of disabilities. Guide dogs have specific tasks they are trained for, often solely related to a person with a sight impairment. According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAAPD)‘s own training:

“A guide dog’s four to six month education involves mastering a set of tasks which, taken together, allow a blind or visually impaired individual to negotiate the unseen environment with greater safety and independence.”

The above link lists the variety of common tasks for hearing dogs and a wide variety of service dog tasks. Guide and hearing dogs have specific tasks for that particular disability, whereas service dogs for people with physical disabilities can be trained to help with tasks their human partner needs assistance with. An example is someone training their service dog, using commands the dog already knows, to perform tasks such as emptying the dryer or tugging open a refrigerator. The former example uses commands such as get it, bring it here, and drop while the latter uses the tug command. For tasks such as tugging doors open, a tug toy is tied to the door handle and the command tells the dog to grab the toy and walk backward.

Sometimes, people may have invisible disabilities and benefit from a dog trained to alert for seizures, help a person stay calm in a crowd by being a buffer between them, or help a person with autism. The latter is currently in debate due to an 8-year-old boy named Sean Forsythe whose certified service dog was denied access into his elementary school. Sean’s mother, Jennifer, states that Sofia, Sean’s service dog, helps Sean manage his “meltdowns”. In addition, Sofia “is able to alert…[s]he sees things before we do”. The school district is seeking more information before rendering a final determination, but they have told Sean’s parents that:

“They didn’t think the dog was necessary in order for Sean to receive an appropriate education since he was making good academic, social and behavioral progress.”

Wouldn’t limiting “meltdowns” be beneficial in a classroom setting?

The refusal to include a service dog, forcing a child to wait while a school district determines whether to grant admittance of the companion, illustrates the discrimination people who have invisible disabilities face when it comes to service dog access.

Service dogs for autism are relatively new, but they are facing a type of discrimination people with psychiatric service dogs have faced for years. Because the tasks service dogs for autism or psychiatric disabilities are so different from those for people with physical disabilities, people think these specific tasks are less important or not truly needed. Many misinterpret the ADA to say that it doesn’t grant access to public places to psychiatric service dogs. The IAAPD explains:

“While a dog’s companionship may offer emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does NOT qualify as a “trained task” or “work” under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a legitimate service dog.“

‘Service animal’ is not the only kind of ‘Working animal.’ Sometimes a working animal that begins training as a service animal for a person with a disability can be career-changed. For example, a dog can instead go into law enforcement as a bomb or drug sniffing dog. A therapy dog is another example of a change in career for a working animal. Therapy dogs visit hospitals, convalescent homes, or libraries to help kids with reading difficulties by simply laying near the child and listening.

Service animals are aids that many people use on a daily basis for a variety of different reasons.  Those reasons also might not be obvious to the inexperienced eye, but that doesn’t make the need insignificant.  Whether a service dog provides balance, alerts to seizures, or helps a person navigate a crowd for a friendly face, they provide critical supports to their owners and help be a stabilizing force in the lives of people with disabilities.

Editor’s Note: Please make note that Jenna makes a distinction between a therapy animal and a psychiatric service animal. For more information on the variety of types of service or assistance animals, you can check out the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. For more information about Autism Service animals and what they can do, we recommend Jim Sinclair’s 1990 essay, What do SSigDOGs do? Jim’s work around Autism Service Animals dates back to the 1980s and continues to this day.

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Representations of “Mercy Killing”

by Jenna Clark

The media discusses “mercy killing” as if it’s an acceptable part of human behavior.  As a person with a disability — as a human being — I find this trend disturbing.

A few weeks ago, 22-year-old George Hodgins was killed by his mother before she turned the gun on herself.  And because George was autistic, news reports largely portrayed this horrible murder-suicide as a tragedy — for the mother. In many articles, George is not even mentioned by name.  His personhood is discarded as an unnecessary side note in a bigger picture.

The only difference our society sees between murder and “mercy killing” is the perception about whose life has worth.  But who makes that decision?  Whose definition of “worth” are we subscribing to, or is the definition given a fluidity depending on the specific circumstances?

In 1993, Robert Latimer murdered his 12-year-old daughter Tracy by exposing her to lethal levels of carbon monoxide. She was left in the cab of a truck, the engine running and the exhaust pipe funneling the fatal gas into a place from which she had no escape.  Is this act less horrific because Tracy had cerebral palsy?  Or is it worse because while others could try and escape, she couldn’t?  Would it be “mercy” if a parent murdered their diabetic child?  How about a child with dyslexia?

Are we, as a society, even trying to see life from another’s perspective?

Differences are never a justification for murder. If we want to discuss the woefully underfunded and often missing services for people with disabilities, great. But whatever gap in services may or may not be present, murder is murder.  And a supposed “mercy killing” says a lot about how society sees me.

It says that as a person with a disability, my life has less inherent value than a person with no disabilities. That George and Tracy and all the others murdered aren’t afforded the same justice as other victims of violent crime.

In the case of George Hodgins, what is being discussed is the hardship disability posed upon his mother. But what about George, the family that loves and misses him, and the friends who mourn his loss?

Without a national discussion, this problem won’t go away.  Right now, the discussion is being replaced by the majority’s uninformed assumptions about life with a disability.  But guess what?

We are people.

We are equals.

And we demand equality.