Movin' On with Nellie: Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes

Valley Courier | Nelda Curtiss

Today readers might not know that service dogs can be any breed or a trained mutt from the local shelter or a seasoned Service Dog like a previously trained Labrador, for example. Today, we are more aware of Service Dogs because of the visibly disabled; however, not every disability is visible. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, is not a visible disability. Nevertheless, care teams may order service animals as a medical necessity for specific psychiatric or medical tasks.

In a feature in the Valley Courier from June 2018 (https://alamosanews.com/article/veteran-educates-public-on-service-dogs-ada), an army veteran noted his mission is to educate about service animals. According to the Justice Department and the Americans With Disabilities Act, some points he stressed are not quite true.

Nowhere in the ADA Guidelines or the Department of Justice’s portable document is a service animal required to be trained by any outfit. The June article may leave the reader with the notion that only a large dog is a service dog. The DOJ holds that the disabled have the right to train their service dog. Consequently, the DOJ also does not sanction or require any specific breed, nor expensive training or certification or vest or placard. The disabled/owner/handler can decide to train the dog on their own or farm out the task to another source.  (https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm)

In conjunction with that statement, any business (police do not have to be called) may ask a service animal to be removed if the canine’s behavior is aggressive, uncontrolled, or destructive. In order not to have your service animal removed, the DOJ requires that service dogs follow basic obedience. Please note: the DOJ does not require service animals be trained to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Enrolling in local obedience training with your dog is the first major step. Some handlers then prefer training their own dog for the role of service dog after completion of basic obedience. Some have noted they were better able to teach the skills needed. The closer the animal lives and interacts with the handler, the more the dog learns. However, a service dog is not a service dog until it is trained to perform at least one task.

McMillan has had more than one episode about training a dog to be a service dog for a particular task. One task that he taught a natural retriever (i.e. it retrieved a ball when thrown) was to retrieve, (i.e. pick up) keys that had fallen. He used the repeat training method by first having the dog retrieve the ball; as that skill was mastered, McMillan taped one key then two keys to the ball; and the dog successfully retrieved the ball with keys, then finally the keys, alone. This task was essential in the episode for the young man in a wheelchair who may drop his keys, pen, small object while in his wheelchair. So, viewers can also work step by step to train a dog to bring a bag with med supplies, or a brush for grooming, or turning lights on and off. 

In frequently asked questions published by the DOJ, we learn that each service animal must perform a task. The soldier’s notion that one person could destroy a dog’s ability to concentrate and carry on the task seems a little extreme. The soldier said he had to remove one dog who was interfered with (greeted and petted by the public) so that it couldn’t do its job any longer. With Cesar Milan on National Geographic Channel or Branden McMillan of Lucky Dog on CBS, viewers learn skill sets to train their dog and to meld behavior to task. A behaviorist like Milan or McMillan may help determine the feasibility of a dog’s personality with the assigned tasks of service. In my experience, though, and like a child’s attention that needs to be redirected, a dog’s attention can be redirected to handler after public interaction. It is the handler’s wishes that should be respected. The DOJ emphasizes that a service dog is not a pet.

The DOJ also states that it’s possible to have more than one service dog. “For example, a person who has a visual disability and a seizure disorder may use one service animal to assist with way-finding and another that is trained as a seizure alert dog.” Remember that a service dog is allowed anywhere that a human goes including hospital, restaurant, pharmacy, department store or even a park where dogs are not allowed.