Marcie Davis, a paraplegic and author of the book, “Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook,” was instrumental in establishing International Assistance Dog Week (IADW), which begins this year on August 4th. IADW was created in order to recognize the hard work, devotion, and extensive training of assistance dogs around the world. Assistance dogs are vital to the lives of the people they work for, as well as their families, as the dogs provide aid, companionship, and independence to those with disability related limitations, both physical and psychological. IADW isn’t just about recognizing and honoring assistance dogs, it is also about raising awareness and educating the public so that they can better understand the critical role these dogs play in the lives of the humans they serve.
Assistance dog and service dog are interchangeable descriptions for dogs that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA. Ratified in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. While the law is clear, the public’s interpretation of the law has become quite muddied. Understanding the difference between service/assistance dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals is vital to the safety and success of people with disabilities and their assistance dogs.
While a service or assistance dog is trained extensively to work or perform tasks for a specific person with a disability, therapy dogs provide affection and comfort to many individuals with the only requirements being basic obedience and a good temperament. Emotional support animals provide support only to their owners and while basic manners are expected, there are no established guidelines or rules. And while both service dogs and therapy dogs must be able to tolerate a wide variety of experiences, other animals, and people, this is not required of an emotional support animal. The ONLY dogs who may legally be present inside of public establishments are service dogs; therapy dogs and emotional support animals may only be present in public spaces designated as pet friendly. Public housing with a “no pets” policy must allow both service animals and emotional support animals to live with their owners. Finally, possession of a vest, harness, ID card, or registration that states that a dog is a trained service animal are not accepted as the sole indication that the animal is indeed a trained assistance dog. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but anyone can purchase a service dog vest/harness and obtain an ID card and registration for their dog on the internet, no training or verification required.
Misrepresenting pet dogs as service dogs puts the health and safety of legitimate assistance dogs and their humans at risk. Pet dogs can become easily overwhelmed and lash out or distract service dogs guiding their humans in public places. It is also important to give assistance dogs and their humans the space they need to navigate public areas without interference. This means that no one should approach a service animal and try to pet or engage it. These dogs are working and while they are trained to work under distractions, people petting them, or other dogs sniffing them, are unnecessary distractions. If, however, you are approached by an assistance dog without its handler, it is important to get help immediately; the dogs are trained to gain the attention of other people if their person is in distress or needs medical assistance.
You can donate your time or make a monetary donation to one of the many legitimate service dog organizations around the world. Here are just a few to consider:
Guide Dogs for the Blind https://www.guidedogs.com/
Canine Companions for Independence https://www.cci.org/
Freedom Service Dogs https://freedomservicedogs.org/
Dogs For Diabetics https://dogs4diabetics.com/
And if you would like to support IADW, you can purchase logoed gifts and apparel at https://www.cafepress.com/assistancedogweek.