Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
Nova is my new friend. He’s a beautiful golden retriever and a service dog trained for balance and mobility. His companion and handler is Maggi, also a new friend! Together they welcomed me into their lives for a deeper understanding of what it means to live and work with a service dog.
Service dogs are not pets; they are working companions. In fact, Maggi is not permitted to ‘own’ Nova until he has been with her four or five years—enough time to determine their bond and companion relationship is solid.
Maggi educated me on the gold standard for breeding, whelping, raising, training, and placing service dogs, which is Assistance Dogs International. Nova comes from New Horizons Service Dogs (they only place dogs in the state of Florida) which strictly adheres to their requirements. Nova and Maggi are registered with ADI and must take their Public Access Test yearly to renew their registry.
A balance and mobility dog works with people who are ambulatory but have balance and strength challenges. Nova helps Maggi with tasks that would be more difficult if not impossible to do on her own. When Maggi fell and broker her ankle, Nova became a rigid brace, allowing Maggi to place her weight on his hips and shoulders to pull herself up.
The Role of a Service Dog
Under Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. They are not to be confused with emotional support dogs or therapy dogs, which are not trained as service dogs.
Under the ADA, only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals. The ADA requires public spaces to permit service animals anywhere the owners can go. The Department of Justice recently modified this ruling, saying animals can be prohibited from going into swimming pools and shopping carts.
The Air Carrier Access Act oversees rules for people with disabilities on air planes, including emotional support animals. Travelers abused the definition, creating added precautions to reduce false claims that pets are service animals. Most airlines now have a pre-approval process that includes documentation from the individual’s healthcare provider.
Training a Service Dog
Nova’s training began when he was a puppy, from a line of dogs bred to be service companions. Some dogs are bred, some are shelter rescues. Not every dog that starts the training completes the program.
Getting a dog to routinely perform specialized tasks requires perseverance, preparation and practice. Programs are a labor-intensive and only the best and smartest graduate. Dogs are trained to serve a wide range of disabilities including seizures, diabetes, paralysis, vision and hearing impairment. Volunteers train them in social situations that include social events, public transportation, shopping malls, and large open spaces.
A recent study found training costs are $20,000-$60,000 per dog. Costs include medical care, food, and training equipment and adoption fees up to $50,000.
Placing a Service Dog
To legally qualify for a service dog, the person applying must have a disability that substantially limits the ability to perform at least one major life task without assistance. To qualify as a service dog, the dog must be trained to perform that task.
Service dogs are obtained through ADA-approved organizations like New Horizons. Qualifying for a service animal requires written documentation from a doctor substantiating the disability, home visits, a financial review confirming the ability to care for the dog, and character references. Insurance companies do not cover service dog costs.
Service dog organizations, especially those training dogs for advanced skills, charge fees of $15,000 to $50,000, making them cost-prohibitive for individuals who need a service dog but cannot afford one. If an organization offers “no cost to the recipient,” payment was made through fund-raising and donations.
When dogs are ready for placement the sponsoring organization uses extensive personality tests to match dogs with handlers. Once chosen, the handler will spend several weeks in intensive training learning how to interact with the dog before going home together.
Not all Dogs are Service Dogs
- Emotional Support Dogs
An emotional support animal (ESA) is prescribed by a mental health professional to provide comfort and companionship to an individual. These animals are pets and do not require specific training but do have legitimate ID cards. Their presence mitigates the symptoms associated with the person’s disorder.
Emotional support dogs are not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. The privileges extended to them are limited to living in a home or apartment that does not normally allow dogs, and to accompany the owner in the cabin of an airplane. They are not allowed in public places.
- Therapy Dogs and Horses
Therapy dogs are pets. They are registered with pet therapy organizations and used most often for therapeutic visitation. They are well-behaved and friendly. Handlers or owners bring dogs to hospitals and nursing home to visit people confined to bed and many have regularly scheduled visits to assisted-living communities.
Equine assisted therapy is overseen by medical professionals using horses to assist in rehabilitative treatment for patients recovering from addiction, PTSD, and physical or mental abuse. This type of therapy is also successful in patients with developmental delays, anxiety, autism and cerebral palsy. Treatment involves working with horses but rarely involves riding them.
The bond between humans and animals is timeless. Watching Maggi and Nova gives me a deep appreciation for the process that brought them together.
Thank you, Nova and Maggi, I’m so glad we’re friends!