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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals

TX SenseAbilities - Spring 2018

By Rachel Simpson, Family Engagement Specialist, TSBVI

Abstract: This article contains some basic information about the use of service dogs, therapy/facility dogs and emotional support dogs.

Keywords: service dog, therapy/facility dog, emotional support dog, dog handler, responsibilities 

What is a service animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that a Service Animal is any animal that has been trained to provide assistance specifically for the benefit of a person with a physical or mental disability which substantially limits one or more of the person’s major life functions. The description in Texas legislation mirrors the federal description, including the stipulation that the service animal must perform tasks that are directly related to the person’s disability.

What legislation supports the right to use a service animal?

Texas law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act guarantee the right of a person who is blind or has other disabilities to be accompanied by a trained service animal in all public places. The most recent legislation in Texas was passed in 2013 and speaks to the rights and responsibilities of people who use service animals.

What type of animal can be a service animal?

Texas law states specifically that a “service animal” or “assistance animal” must be a canine. In some states, miniature horses can be used if certain criteria are met. 

What types of disabilities must a person have to use a service dog?  

The first type of service dog was a guide dog (or dog guide) which is used by a person who is blind or visually impaired. Today, people with many different types of disabilities use service dogs. There are now service dogs for many different disabilities, such as:

  • Blindness/Visual Impairment
  • Mobility Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment or Deafness
  • Autism
  • Psychiatric Disabilities
  • Medical conditions, including diabetes and seizures. 

Who can train a service dog?

The current law allows for a person to train their own dog, go through a private trainer or attend a program at a service dog school. As a previous service dog user, I have gone through a private trainer and a service dog school to get a trained service dog and found advantages in each method. I do not know anyone who trained their own dog.

Because guide dog schools have been in existence so much longer, the expectations for the dogs and handlers are more standardized. For other disabilities, the training of service dogs is relatively new. Apparently because of the diverse population served and the relative newness of the field, my experience is that there is much less standardization in dog training and terminology that service dog trainers use, outside of guide dog schools.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a service dog?

The main advantage of having a service dog is that the dog can do the various tasks that help offset the effects of the disability. If you’re a dog lover, having a dog around all the time can be a real perk. In my opinion, the disadvantages are that it can make social situations awkward. In addition, people are drawn to the person with a service dog, but their attention can be disruptive to a typical social situation. The other disadvantage is that you have to take the dog out to relieve it in all kinds of weather. Also, they are not perfect little robots. They are just dogs with their own quirks and personality traits, both good and bad. I’ve had three service dogs, so obviously the positives outweighed the negatives for me. Although my health has improved and I no longer need a service dog, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

What are the responsibilities of the service dog user?

The handler must keep the dog under their control at all times. The handler must have the dog on a leash unless the disability does not allow for lease usage. The handler must relieve the dog regularly and clean up after the dog. The handler must also pay for any damages caused by the animal. The handler pays for all grooming, veterinary care, and gear. The gear can include things like the harness or vest, leash, portable water and food bowls, etc. 

At what age can my child get a service dog?

It depends on what tasks you want the dog to do, who the handler will be, and the guidelines of the individual trainer or school you are using. In most cases, very young children do not serve as dog handlers. The parent is typically the handler for children under 16, but this varies.

Are there other types of support animals?

The terminology varies by region and sometimes by the trainer or school used.

Typically, Therapy or Facility Dogs are those that have been trained with specific commands to provide comfort and affection to people in hospitals, schools and other facilities. You may have heard of reading programs for children in which the children read to the dogs. A dog in that situation would typically be referred to as a Therapy or Facility Dog. This type of dog provides assistance to people in a certain facility, situation (such as a disaster) or program. The dog does not provide services to the handler and does not have access to public places. The dog would only have access to serve people within a designated facility, situation or program.

An Emotional Support Dog is one that provides emotional support and companionship to a person with a disability, just by being a dog. They do not have access to public places except when needed for transportation. In order to use an Emotional Support Dog during a bus ride or during a flight, the person must generally get a recommendation by their physician. The best way to approach this is to learn the guidelines of the bus or airline carrier you are using.

Service Dog Etiquette: To Pet or Not to Pet

Although it varies by the needs/preferences of the service dog handler, the standard is not to pet or give attention to the service animal. If the dog is interacting with you, it is distracted from helping the handler and will limit the handler’s ability to accomplish his/her task.  In addition, it can result in an injury to the dog or handler.

I hope this article has provided you with some basic information to help you decide if a service dog may be of assistance to your child or if it merits further investigation.

Rachel and her service dog, Ruby at Palo Duro Canyon.  Ruby is wearing her red service dog vest
Photo of Rachel and her service dog, Ruby at Palo Duro Canyon. Ruby is wearing her red service dog vest