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.