By Veronica Sanchez
The service dog industry is ever growing and changing. With the expanding use of service dogs there has, unfortunately, also been abuse of laws pertaining to service animals and emotional support animals (ESA) in particular. Lawmakers have taken notice of this and, consequently, passed changes in legislation, which have impacted guardians of ESAs as well as service dogs. This has led to an even greater need for qualified service dog trainers.
To best understand the changes in the law and their impact on service dog and ESA handlers, we need to begin by examining the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” (U.S. Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division, 2010).
Tasks are essentially behaviors the dog is trained to do to assist the person. For example, a service dog may be trained to alert a person who is deaf to a door knock, or to pick up dropped objects for a person using a wheelchair. The law also protects the right of people with disabilities to take their service dogs to locations where dogs are not typically permitted, like restaurants or supermarkets.
In the service dog world, the term for this is “public access.” It’s important to remember that public access is not considered a “perk” but rather something the person needs. The same way a person with a disability may need to use a cane or wheelchair in a supermarket or restaurant, a person with a disability may need their service dog’s help in those locations.
Unlike service animals who are trained to perform specific tasks to help a person with a disability, ESAs are not task trained. Their presence provides comfort. People often confuse ESAs with service dogs trained to help people with PTSD or another mental illness. However, unlike ESAs, service dogs trained to help people with PTSD or other mental illnesses perform tasks. For instance, a service dog may be trained to remind their handler to take medication, to alert to increasing anxiety, or to retrieve an emergency phone.
There are many different possible tasks a service dog may perform to help a person with mental illness. Because ESAs are not service animals under the ADA, people with disabilities cannot take ESAs to places where pets are not permitted.
Air Travel and Housing
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) used to allow people to bring ESAs in the cabin of an airplane when they traveled. However, abuse of this law made headlines as some people started traveling with unusual species as ESAs. In one case a person tried to travel with a peacock. There were bite incidents as well; in 2019 a passenger was severely injured by an emotional support dog and sued the airline.
Beginning in early 2021, the Department of Transportation (DOT) revised the ACAA and discontinued permitting ESAs in the cabin of an airplane. Additionally, the DOT made some changes regarding service animal access. The DOT now allows airlines to require some forms from service animal handlers attesting to their service dog’s health, behavior, and training.
Although ESAs are no longer covered under the ACAA, they are still covered by the Fair Housing Act and Rehabilitation Act. These laws pertain to access to most no-pets-allowed housing. Because of concerns regarding abuse of the law, there have been a few changes here as well, with additional guidelines for landlords regarding documentation they can request.
Since ESAs are no longer permitted in the cabin of an airplane, individuals used to flying with their ESA in the cabin are now unable to. Many have been reaching out to pet dog trainers, requesting help with training their ESAs as service dogs. In addition, more and more people with disabilities are turning to trainers to help them acquire and train their own service dog, or to train their current dog to perform service tasks.
The Training Process
Although the law does not set specific parameters for the training of service dogs, there have long been industry standards. There are no shortcuts; guardians who want to train their own service dogs should be prepared to complete the same process expected of all service dogs, even if their dog is an ESA and has already previously traveled by plane.
The first step in training a service dog involves carefully assessing and selecting a dog for this type of work. Then, age-appropriate socialization and basic training are needed. The dog is trained to complete tasks to assist the guardian and prepared to work in a variety of public access environments. Ongoing assessments are conducted throughout the training process to ensure the dog is the right fit for this rigorous work. Both the dog and handler are assessed together in various public situations to ensure they can work safely and appropriately as a team.
Service dog programs that select, train and place service dogs with people with disabilities usually complete this process in about a year and a half to two years when beginning with puppies. Trainers who work with people with disabilities to train their own dogs for service work often find it takes even longer, as most guardians do not train dogs as quickly as professionals do. Training must be maintained, so even after the initial intensive process, reputable programs provide ongoing support and periodically reassess the team’s work in public access to ensure training is maintained over time. Service dog trainers provide similar ongoing support to their guardian-trainer clients.
One aspect of the law that often surprises people is that certification and registration of service dogs is not required in the United States. The law is flexible in order to allow people with disabilities various ways to acquire a service dog.
Is Service Dog Training Right for You?
People with disabilities who choose to select and train a service dog themselves should always seek qualified professional help. There is a growing need for trainers to support people with disabilities training their own dogs for service work. This is a specialty area that is both rewarding and complex. Trainers interested in training service dogs need to be knowledgeable about the service dog training process in general, and task training specifically.
They also must have their business set up properly, with appropriate paperwork and insurance needed for this work. Trainers also need to know how to adapt their training strategies and work effectively with people with disabilities, as well as how to collaborate with healthcare providers to ensure they are selecting, training, and implementing tasks in ways that are appropriate and safe for their clients.
There are increasing opportunities to learn about service dog training in greater depth, including courses, webinars and even some trainers who offer mentorship. It is exciting for trainers to be involved in the expanding world of service dogs now, training dogs to make a big difference in their guardians’ lives.
U.S. Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division. (2010). Americans with Disabilities Act Requirements: Service Animals
U.S. Department of Transportation. (2021). Service Animals
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (n.d.). Assistance Animals
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp.30-31. Read the full article The Ever-Changing World of Service Dog Training.
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About the Author
Veronica Sanchez M.Ed CABC CPDT-KA is the founder of Cooperative Paws Service Dog Coach™, a certification program for professional trainers, and she offers a variety of courses in service dog training. She is also the author of the book Service Dog Coaching: A Guide for Pet Dog Trainers. As a dog trainer with a disability, her passion for service dogs is personal as well as professional.