Service Animals 101: Everything you need to know

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Over 13 percent of the U.S. population has a physical disability, according to the US Census Bureau. Service animals are an essential resource and massive help for people with disabilities in and out of the workplace.

What is a service animal?

Service animals are trained to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. There are over a dozen kinds of service animals that help people who have psychiatric and physical disabilities. Here are 8 of the most common service animals:

  1. Allergy Detection Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with allergies. They detect whether an allergen is in food.

  2. Autism Support Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with autism. They interrupt self-harming behaviors, mitigate emotional meltdowns, and provide predictability.

  3. Diabetic Alert Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with diabetes. They alert them if their blood sugar is low or high before they are in danger.

  4. Guide Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people who are blind and visually impaired. They lead them around obstacles and protect them from dangers such as oncoming traffic.

  5. Hearing Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They alerting their owners to sounds like a phone, smoke alarm, doorbell or name call with physical movements.

  6. Mobility Assistance Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people who have limited mobility. They provide balance, pick up objects and bring them to the owner, pull wheelchairs, and more.

  7. Psychiatric Service Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with psychiatric impairments like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They distract the owner from public environments, mitigate a person’s symptoms and more.

  8. Seizure Response Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with seizures. They bark or press an alarm system to get help if their handler has a seizure, bring them medicine or a phone and help protect them while they are having a seizure.

MEET CHARM THE SERVICE DOG!

Image by Alison Postighone

Charm is not the typical golden retriever that you may have in mind when you picture a service dog. Charm is a 20-pound cockapoo that assists his handler who has severe scoliosis and spinal fusion. Charm helps her with daily tasks like preventing people from bumping into her by creating a physical barrier. He also retrieves anything she needs or drops including water, her cellphone, and keys.

Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Individuals often confuse service and emotional support animals. Here are some key distinctions between the two.

  • Service Animal: Service animals are trained to perform a specific task that a person cannot perform themselves.

  • Emotional Support Animal: Emotional support animals provide therapeutic benefits to an individual.

  • Key Difference: Service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is; however, emotional support animals are not. Some states have more lenient laws that allow individuals to bring emotional support animals into public places, so be sure to check your state’s laws.

Service Animal Cost

Service animals can be expensive. If you want to train your dog the cost varies based on the breed you purchase, your dog’s obedience, the task you are training it to perform, and whether you train it yourself or hire a professional. Here are some frequently asked questions about buying and training a service animal.

How long does it take to train a service dog?

  • It takes most people two-years to fully train their dog and get them certified.

How much does it cost to train a service dog?

  • Trainers usually charge $150-$250 an hour. You can also send your dog away to be trained for a month, which can cost several thousand dollars. The total cost of training can range from $7,000 to $50,000, the higher end usually being for guide dogs. This cost does not include grooming, feeding, and veterinarian costs.

How much does a service dog cost?

  • A service dog can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 depending on the type of dog and what tasks you need it to perform.

Service Animal Rights

Not everyone is understanding and accommodating of people with service animals. Fortunately, legislation exists that prohibits discrimination against individuals with service animals.

  • ADA Public Places Law: Privately owned businesses that serve the public cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. They have to allow individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals where the general public is allowed and are also not allowed to charge a maintenance or cleaning fee for a service animal. This law also prohibits people from asking you what your disability is and asking to see identification or certification documents for your service animal. People are allowed to ask you if your animal is a service animal and what tasks your dog is trained to do. However, they cannot ask your animal to demonstrate these tasks.

  • The Air Carrier Access Act: This act prohibits disability discrimination on aircrafts (i.e., airplanes). A service animal is allowed to fly with you in the cabin free of charge.

  • The Fair Housing Act: This act prohibits disability discrimination in housing accommodations. Landlords cannot deny you housing or charge you extra for having an emotional support or service animal.

Image by Alison Postighone

Charm has full public access and can enter restaurants, movie theaters, and even zoos. It is illegal to deny Charm access to these places or to ask him to perform tasks. It is also illegal to ask his owner about her disability. You can only ask Charm whether or not he is a service animal and what service tasks he can do to aid his handler with her disability.

What To Do If Your Rights Are Violated

If your rights were violated and you want to take action, here is a list of resources that you can use:

  • Fill out an ADA Discrimination Complaint Form: Privately owned businesses that serve the public cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. They have to allow individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals where the general public is allowed and are also not allowed to charge a maintenance or cleaning fee for a service animal.

  • Use Social Media: If someone discriminates against you and your service animal, you can write reviews about the establishment that denied you service. You can review them on numerous platforms, including Facebook, Yelp, and Trip Advisor. Depending on state laws, you can record the incident and promote what happened on social media platforms to spread awareness and call for change.

  • Carry Documentation: While not required, it can be helpful to carry documentation with you, like these ADA Service Animal Requirements, that outlines laws regarding service animals.

  • Get a lawyer: You can get a lawyer if you want to take further actions. However, this can be expensive. LegalMatch matches you with a lawyer that can help with your service animal discrimination case.

Myths About Service Animals

People sometimes have misconceptions about service animals. Here are five common misconceptions:

Service animals have to be golden retrievers.

  • Service animals can be dozens of different dog breed and even animals that are not dogs. They can also be miniature horses.

All service animals wear vests.

  • According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are not legally required to wear vests or have identification.

“No pets” policies prohibit service animals from entering an establishment

  • Service animals are allowed anywhere the general public is including places that have “no pets” signs and policies.

Cats can be service animals.

  • Cats cannot be service animals.

You can always pet and approach a service animal.

  • Some people do not want others to interact with their service animals. You should ask before petting a dog and if the owner says no, do not get offended. Petting a service animal can distract them from being alert to perform their tasks.

How To Get a Service Animal

Getting a service animal can be a long and challenging process. Before you get one, you need to have documentation from a healthcare provider demonstrating that you need one. Here are a few options once you have the necessary documentation:

Purchasing One:

  • You can buy a service animal from an organization that trains them. Many individuals choose to go this route. For example, individuals who require seeing-eye dogs often need to purchase them since they often cannot train them on their own. Unfortunately, this process can take years as some waitlists are very long, and can be very expensive.

Train One:

  • You can buy a dog and train it yourself or hire someone else to help you. The training process can take years and can be costly. Training is not for everyone, and for some people, their disability can make training a dog very difficult.

Get Assistance:

  • You can get a service animal through a subsidized organization. There are several organizations that provide people with disabilities service animals for a reduced price and even for free.

Organizations that can help you get a service animal for a reduced price:

  • Little Angel Service Dogs: This nonprofit trains and places service dogs with individuals with disabilities at a discounted rate.

  • 4 Paws For Ability: This nonprofit provides children with disabilities and veterans who have lost the use of limbs with service animals at a discounted price.

  • Service Dogs For America: This organization provides individuals with disabilities with service animals at a discounted rate. They offer mobility assistance dogs, emergency medical response dogs and service animals for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Organizations that can help you get a service animal free of cost:

  • Guide Dog Foundation: This foundation provides people who are blind, visually impaired, or who have special needs with trained guide dogs free of charge.

  • 4 Guide Dogs of America: This nonprofit provides people who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S. and Canada with trained guide dogs free of cost.

  • Paws With A Cause: This organization provides custom-trained service dogs to individuals with physical disabilities, hearing dogs to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, seizure response dogs to people who have epilepsy, and service dogs to children with autism. They do all of this for no charge.

Devon Feuer
Devon Feuer
Author