What is a service dog?

OKEECHOBEE — What is a true service dog? What are they trained to do? What service do they provide? How are they taught to respond in an emergency? What is the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal? Those are just some of the questions the general public have when it comes to these animals.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
A service dog is trained to help his handler with a specific task or need.

According to the “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals Manual,” written by Jacquie Brennan and Vinh Nguyen and posted on the “Americans with Disabilities” website, a service animal is almost always a dog. No other animal qualifies as a service animal, although in rare cases, a miniature horse may be trained as a service animal. A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks to aid a person with a disability. The dogs are trained to perform specific tasks such as pull a wheelchair, alert a person to a sound, press an elevator button or remind them to take medication. The work they do must be directly related to the person’s disability such as a guide dog for the visually impaired. Emotional support animals are used for companionship or to help with depression or loneliness or anxiety. They do not have special training to perform tasks to help people with disabilities. They are NOT considered service animals and are not covered by federal laws regarding service animals.

If a service animal behaves inappropriately and the person with the disability does not control the animal, a business is not required by law to allow the animal to remain. For example, if the dog’s repeated barking is disrupting another person’s enjoyment of a movie, it would be acceptable to ask the owner of the dog to leave. The same holds true if the dog acts in a threatening manner. The animal must be on a leash, housebroken and vaccinated.

Service animals are allowed in all public facilities and accommodations even if there is a no pets policy because a service animal is not considered a pet. When a person with a service animal enters, the person with the animal can legally be asked only two questions:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

You cannot ask for documentation proving the dog has been certified or trained. You cannot charge a surcharge even if you normally charge a fee for pets, because a service dog is not considered a pet.

Although employers cannot discriminate because of a disability, they do have more leeway when it comes to asking questions and requiring documentation. If the disability and the reason the animal is needed is unclear, the potential employer may request documentation detailing the person’s disability and how the animal will help.

Emotional support, therapy and companion animals are usually not allowed in public schools.

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow both service and emotional support animals to accompany passengers in the cabin of the aircraft. Airlines may choose to consider other animals such as miniature horses, pigs and monkeys as service animals and allow them to ride in the cabin on a case-by-case basis. Animals “in training” are not allowed in the cabin.

Another person’s fear of dogs or allergy to dogs does not mean the service dog does not have the right to enter. The person with the fear or allergy should be seated as far away as possible in order to accommodate both patrons.

Even establishments that prepare or serve food are required to allow service dogs in, despite state or local health codes prohibiting animals on the premises.

According to Ron Kelly, a local veteran who has his own service dog, these dogs are taught to work with emergency personnel. A properly trained service dog would never attack someone who was trying to help their handler, he said. Mr. Kelly said if he were to be injured or was ill and an EMT was called, his dog was trained to lie down nearby and let the rescue workers do their job. Mr. Kelly got his dog from Paws 4 Liberty in Wellington. They are specifically focusing on post-9/11 veterans with PTS symptoms, but they serve veterans from all wars. Go to Paws4liberty.org to learn more.

The mission of Paws 4 Liberty is to help returning soldiers regain their independence and confidence through the assistance of trained service dogs.

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