Assistance Dogs

All About Assistance Dogs

***This section of my site is under very heavy construction with a ton of information I am writing up to share. Please check back frequently to see more content as I publish it.***







“Why do you have an assistance dog?”

I get that question a lot, because physically on the outside I look normal. I have some health issues that have made things difficult for me. I have Dysautonomia, my own resulting in neurally mediated hypotension and related problems that often cause balance issues. When I have symptoms, trying to constantly compensate and correct my posture to keep from stumbling or falling can be very physically draining on top of the constant widespread pain and fatigue I experience due to Fibromyalgia.

I was once nervous to go anywhere without my significant other or a friend in case I had an episode that led to full syncope ( passing out ) and falling.

My service dogs have allowed me to be more independent again. With their help, I don’t expend as much energy keeping balance. I can do more and stay out longer than I used to before I had their help.

Training is not over simply because we get our certifications. Training and learning keeps going, long beyond that. There is always room for improvement, and always room to learn new and exciting things!

It takes a metric ton of patience, dedication, and repetition to just get to the beginning foundation of what is really required to train your own assistance dog. If you have come across this writing by searching for information on owner-training, it is not an easy process and not one to be taken lightly. I have spent countless hours reading, watching videos, and having hands on experience to prepare for all this, and we have hardly scratched the surface. That being said, don’t let it discourage you if you are really serious about it and can truly benefit from such an amazing partnership.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I’m happy to help if I can.

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The more I interact with people in public, the more I realize most of them do not know what an assistance dog is or how to properly interact with assistance dogs or working dogs in general. I am hoping to spread awareness and education by sharing the following information.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees people with disabilities the right to be accompanied by an assistance dog in all areas open to the general public. An assistance dog is a dog specially trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with disabilities, to help lessen those disabilities in the individual’s daily life.

Assistance dogs perform vital tasks for their human partner. They are guide dogs for people who have visual impairments and service dogs for those with disabilities other than blindness. Hearing alert dogs help people with hearing impairments. Mobility assist dogs aid people with limited mobility or physical limitations. Diabetic response/alert dogs are trained to detect changes in their partners’ blood sugar levels. Seizure response/alert dogs are trained to assist their partner during a seizure.  Medical response and alerting for many different conditions can be encouraged and put on cue in dogs who seem to have an innate ability to detect these changes.  However many of these things cannot be taught to every dog through training, because we are not totally certain how they sense it in the first place.  Some dogs are even trained to work with children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, and similar psychiatric conditions, trained to interrupt repetitive or self harming behaviors ( or similar ) by grounding their partner in the present.  Assistance dogs provide independence, enhanced mobility, and help their handlers through everyday life.

Assistance dogs aren’t like pet dogs. Not every dog meets the strict health and behavioral requirements to be an assistance dog.  From the moment they are born, service dogs are being shaped for the important work they will do. Carefully bred for temperament and health, most service dogs are trained by nonprofit organizations or training centers. When possible, some organizations are able to rescue select dogs from local shelters if they meet the strict behavior and health requirements to qualify as an assistance dog. Sometimes breeders also donate dogs to these organizations.

In some cases, people with disabilities train their own dogs, if they have the advanced skills necessary to do so, which go far beyond basic obedience. Known as owner-trainers, it is a lot harder for these individuals, who are normally working on their own with limited resources. They have to work on soundly training a dog that may or may not have what it takes to be a service dog, while struggling with their disabilities.  Some have professional dog training experience, while others seek the aid of professional trainers to assist in the process. Owner-trainers have more challenges to overcome than people realize, but it can be extremely rewarding in the end.

One of the main reasons some people choose to try and train their own assistance dog is because waiting lists for organization trained dogs can average anywhere from 2 years to 5 years depending on the organization and types of dogs they train.  Owner-training is not to be taken lightly if you are considering it as a “shortcut” to get an assistance dog.  It takes a lot of hard work and patience, and willingness to possibly face working with multiple dogs before finding a good working dog candidate.  Sometimes you’ll work with dogs who aren’t fit for public access, and you’ll need to remove that dog from training, accept failure and things not in your control, and either move on and find another dog to try and train, or face the possibility of having to get a dog through a program anyway.

For puppies born into organization programs, after eight weeks of care by the staff or brood home, the puppies are given to selected volunteer individuals or families known as puppy raisers for at least a year. These volunteers help teach the puppy basic obedience and socialize and expose it to all the various situations it will face during its working career.

Once the year in the foster home is completed, the dog is sent back to the organization for up to six months or more of formal training. After this training is completed and the dog has passed all behavioral and physical requirements, the dog is then matched with a handler who has a disability. The last month or so of training is usually reserved for the team to work and train together. The handler is taught how to give commands to the dog, and the two begin to form a bond. After the training is completed, the team graduates and the dog goes home with the handler.

Those dogs who do not quite meet the public access health or behavior requirements, both organization trained and owner-trained, often end up being “career changed”.  In most cases these dogs have already gone through basic obedience and may have some advanced skills, and while they may not be perfect for assistance dog work, they might be good at other things!  Some go on to other working dog careers, while others become very well mannered pet dogs who might participate in sports dog activities or volunteer therapy dog work.

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How To Properly Behave Around Assistance Dogs And Assistance Dogs In-Training

Thank you for your interest in learning how to handle interactions with assistance dog ( service dog ) teams.  For the purposes of this writing, I will use the terms interchangeably. The information you find here applies when meeting or just passing by an assistance dog team, or anyone working with an animal partner.  It will make a world of difference, and handlers will appreciate it.

Most importantly above anything else, do not distract the dog or interfere with its work in any way.

In order to perform their work to the best of their abilities, service dogs must be able to focus on either their handler, or the task at hand.  Even though service dogs are trained to the highest of standards and typically ignore distractions, they are not perfect 100% of the time. Sometimes they make mistakes, just like people.  A distracted service dog could slip up on a key part of its work and put itself and its partner in danger.

Here are some rules and guidelines to follow when in the presence of an assistance dog and its partner:

1. Ignore The Dog

Approach an individual with an assistance dog the same way you would someone without an assistance dog.  Assistance dogs might be wearing some type of vest/harness or some other gear that helps them assist their handlers, or they might be wearing nothing but a collar and leash. If the vest or tags on them says something like, “Service Dog. Do Not Pet.” then do not focus your attention towards the animal.  You should ignore the dog and pretend like it isn’t there.

2. Be Considerate; The Handler Has A Life

Your behavior should not interfere with the dog’s work or focus in any way. Assistance dogs are working to help their partners with every day tasks or to assist with the symptoms of a medical condition. It is vital that the dog’s attention stay focused on their handler.  Remember that the person is probably out for a purpose, (grocery shopping, going to an appointment, out to eat), just like everyone else. They are not there to entertain you or your children. Be thoughtful about interrupting their day to greet them or ask questions.

3. Greet And Speak To The Person, Not The Assistance Dog. Ask And Be Given Permission Before Interacting With The Dog In Any Way.

Ignore the dog otherwise, pretend like it isn’t there.  For animal lovers, it can be exciting to see a dog out in public in places dogs are not normally allowed.  No matter how much we love animals though, it is polite to greet the person working with the dog first.  It is very important to ask and be given permission *before* interacting with the dog in any way. Be willing to respectfully accept “no” as an answer to your request to interact with the dog.

4. Do Not Interact With, Talk To, Or Touch The Service Dog In Any Way Without First Asking For And Receiving Permission To Do So.

When a service dog is working, you should not engage with it in any way. Doing so is a distraction and may prevent the dog from tending to its partner. Be sensitive to the fact the dog is working and may be in the middle of a command or direction from its handler. Most service dogs need to be released from “work mode” by a command to interact with someone.  For all intents and purposes, an assistance dog is considered medical equipment by law.  You wouldn’t run across the store and stop a person in a wheelchair or a person walking with a cane or other assistive device to ask them if you could pet their wheelchair or other medical equipment.  So please be mindful of this sort of behavior toward assistance dog handlers.  If you wouldn’t do it to a stranger’s child, you shouldn’t to a service dog either.

If a service dog handler does not want you to interact with the dog, don’t be embarrassed or offended. The handler has specific needs and reasons why it is not the appropriate time to interact with the dog. Some service dog handlers have a strict “no petting” policy and some do not.  Some dogs ( like my own ) even learn to recognize when someone asks if they can pet them, so handlers can’t always say yes the moment you ask.  The dog might develop bad habits and think it can greet anyone who asks at any time.  If a handler doesn’t allow petting, it may be because it would prevent the dog from performing his or her job correctly.  It is up to the handler to decide, on a case by case basis, whether others may pet the service dog.

5. Follow The Handler’s Instructions When Interacting With The Assistance Dog.

Service dogs have different rules for behavior than pet dogs do, because their jobs are so important and they are exposed to so much more than pet dogs. If the handler does choose to have you interact, you do so by their rules.  They may ask you to wait for the dog to sit before you pet it, or ask you not to let the dog lick your face, or not to use “baby talk” or encourage the dog to jump up, or have other guidelines for how the dog must behave. Just because you are “okay with it” doesn’t mean the dog is allowed to do it.  Listening to and following the owner’s instructions will help avoid the dog learning bad habits that might jeopardize its ability to help its partner.

6. Assistance Dogs Are Almost Always Working Or Performing Tasks For Their Handlers, In Public And At Home, Even If It Doesn’t Look Like They Are.

You may not always be aware when a service dog is working. Some people mistakenly think that a service dog at rest beside its handler is not working, and they approach to pet it.  If you see a service dog wearing a harness or vest, ask if petting or talking with the dog is permitted, even if it seems to be at rest. The handler may tell you that the dog is on duty or working. This means that although the dog is not active, it is still working and should not be petted or bothered.

These same rules apply at pet friendly locations where dogs are normally allowed.  If you are in a pet store and see an assistance dog wearing gear and shopping with its handler, that dog is still working regardless of being in a place that allows animals.

These same rules apply even if you know the handler and the dog, either as a friend or as an employee at a place they frequent.  It becomes common for assistance dog handlers to be immediately recognized when they shop somewhere frequently because they have a dog with them, and people are naturally curious.  If you do have friendly interactions with the handler and their dog, and are given permission to interact with the dog during one of those occasions, it does *not* entitle you to always do so every time you see them, anywhere you see them. You still need to ask permission before interacting with the dog, so you don’t interfere with its work or teach it bad habits.

As a general rule if you have met someone with a service dog, you should always assume the service dog is working to help its partner, whether it is in work gear and out in public, just in collar on leash ( no gear ) at the pet store, or even if it is in its own home or visiting yours.  While the dog might be “off duty” in the sense it is allowed free roam and interaction in some of these situations, some of the conditions these dogs are trained to assist with necessitate that the dog be ready to respond and go into “work mode” at a moment’s notice with or without their gear on.

A good example would be of a diabetic assist/alert dog sensing a change in blood sugar levels or a seizure assist/alert dog sensing an impending seizure and needing to signal their partner to these changes to keep them safe.

7.  Service Dogs Are Not Pets.

Do not treat the service dog as a pet.  Give it the respect of a working dog. Assistance dogs do get opportunities to relax and “just be dogs” a lot more often than people think, but they are not pets. They are working dogs and need to be treated as such.

8.  Treat Service Dog Handlers With Dignity And Respect.

Speak to the handler, not to the dog.  Speak to the handler as you would anyone else and do not ask personal questions about his or her disability unless they offer to discuss it.  You wouldn’t normally stop someone in a wheelchair or someone using a cane to ask them why they have or use those devices.  Assistance dog handlers are no different and should be shown the same courtesy.

9. Ask Thoughtful Questions.

It is inspiring to see an assistance dog team working together to navigate the world, and natural to be curious and have questions about how they learned to do it. When interacting with a person working with a service dog, ask thoughtful questions like “How does the dog help you?” or “How was the dog trained?” rather than “Why do you need a dog?” or “Why can’t I bring MY dog to Walmart?”

If a service dog handler doesn’t stop to chat, don’t be offended.  Many handlers are happy to answer respectful questions about their assistance dogs.  However, this may not always be possible, as the handler may be in a hurry, may not feel well, or have other reasons not to be able to stop and talk at that moment.

10.  Use Encounters With Service Dog Teams As An Opportunity To Educate Children (And Adults!)

Children are naturally curious and may not understand why the assistance dog is allowed in the store. Educate them.  Most handlers do not mind talking about assistance dogs and their dog specifically if they have the time and are feeling well enough.  Explain to children what a service dog does and why it is important not to interfere with the team’s work.  Also explain that not all disabilities are obvious to others. Someone could look normal, but still have conditions that require the dog’s aid.  Let children know they can admire the dog from a distance as long as they do not try to distract it, but should otherwise not bother a working team.

11. Do Not Be Afraid Of The Dog.

There is no need to be afraid of an assistance dog.  They are carefully tested and selected for appropriate temperament. They have been professionally trained to have excellent manners. Always approach an assistance dog team calmly and speak to their partner before touching or addressing the dog.

12.  Do Not Draw Unnecessary Attention To A Service Dog Team.

Pointing, exclaiming things like, “Look, a dog!” , screaming and jumping away or running away because you are surprised to see a dog in the store, and doing other things to make a spectacle of a service dog team is rude and makes service dog handlers feel uncomfortable.  Teach your children not to do this.  Adults should know better, but may have to be taught as well.  Allow a service dog handler to go about his or her business just as you would anyone else.

13.  Avoid Creating Distractions

In addition to petting a working service dog, other interactions can place both the dog and handler at risk. Do not aim distracting or rude noises at the service dog team or allow your children to do so.  Do not bark, whistle, make “baby noises”, cooing/kissy noises, snapping, clapping, or other sounds directed at the dog as this again may provide a dangerous distraction. This also includes talking to the dog, making eye contact and staring at the dog, or doing anything else that might create a distraction for the animal.  For example, calling the dog’s name or trying to give it commands of any kind is highly inappropriate. Many handlers do not give out their dog’s name to avoid the possibility of the dog being distracted when hearing its name.  The best way to avoid creating distractions is to ask the handler if it is okay to interact with the dog. Most handlers will see this as an excellent opportunity to further educate you about their dog.

14.  Do Not Allow Children Or Pets To Interfere With, Challenge, Harass, Or Intimidate An Assistance Dog Team.

Children who think they can run up to any animal they see and pet or grab it are in real danger.  Allowing children to do such things is asking for trouble ( that is how most get bitten or scratched). No animal should be forced to tolerate a child’s bad behavior. Animals only have one way to say “no” if they feel threatened or afraid. It is up to you as the adult to supervise your children and teach them not to do things like that.  Do not allow your children to run or scream around assistance dogs, as it is highly distracting to the dog.  Children should not tease assistance dogs with balls or other toys they might have by tossing them or waving them around to try and get the dog’s attention.  Do not allow your child to approach a service dog because they want to pet it or otherwise play with or touch the dog.

If you have a non-service ( pet ) dog with you and you come across someone who is using his/her service dog, do not let your dog interact with his/her service dog. Do not allow your dog to bark at, whine, growl, lunge at, or direct any other bad behavior toward an assistance dog team.  Keep your dog under control on short leash at your side (please *do not* let Flexi/retractable leads stretch toward the assistance dog team) and always ask if it is okay and get permission first for your two dogs to interact prior to letting your dog attempt to get closer.  Don’t be offended if the assistance dog handler doesn’t allow it.  Some dogs are more dog social than they are human social, and interacting with another dog while working can be a huge distraction. Some handlers also don’t want to take any risk that might injure their assistance dog in any way. Too much time and money goes into raising, training, and working with assistance dogs to risk them losing their ability to work and help their handlers.

15.  Do Not Ask A Service Dog Handler To Have Their Dog Demonstrate A Task.

It is in poor taste to ask a service dog handler to cue the dog to demonstrate a task.  Service dogs’ work revolve around mitigating their handlers’ disabilities, and disabilities are very personal matters.  Furthermore, many service dogs do work that is dependent on very specific circumstances that cannot be recreated on a whim. If the handler offers a demonstration, that’s different. Some might do so to help educate others who are not familiar with assistance dogs and what they can do for people.  While some handlers might be okay with providing a little demonstration ( a mobility assist dog picking up a dropped object for example ), not everyone will be able or willing to do so every time they are asked.

16.  Do Not Photograph Or Record Video Of A Service Dog Team Without Getting Their Permission To Do So.

While you might want to share your encounter with all your friends via social media, it is actually an invasion of privacy to try and take a picture or video of a service dog team ( or anyone! ) without their permission.  Some service dogs and their handlers have their own blogs or use social media and might be totally fine with the idea or even ask you to send them a copy!  Keep in mind that all assistance dog handlers live with some sort of disability or medical condition, some that are not always obvious. Some people are more sensitive than others. Some get very nervous or upset when they feel their right to privacy is violated, especially when dealing with their disabilities or medical conditions.  It is always better to ask, and respectfully take “no” for an answer. It likely has nothing to do with you, and the handler isn’t trying to be mean if they decline.  They just may not like being the center of attention and having their picture or video taken.

17.  Do Not Ask Personal Questions About The Handler’s Disability, Or Otherwise Intrude On His Or Her Privacy.

Similar to privacy issues noted above.  It is normally okay to ask about the assistance dog, but you should avoid asking more personal or invasive questions about the dog’s purpose or the handler’s disabilities, especially when it is not obvious.  That is a personal and sensitive matter for some, and they may not feel comfortable discussing it with strangers.  Some handlers might be willing to discuss some information, but don’t expect it from every handler, or for them to be comfortable talking about everything.

18. Do Not Give Food To Service Dogs

Never offer any kind of food or treats to a service dog without first receiving permission from its handler. Most assistance dogs are on very specific diets and fed on strict schedules. Even service dogs can be tempted by food.  While service dogs are trained to ignore food on the ground and not to beg when there is food around, it can still serve as a distraction.  Some dogs also have allergies like people do.  Feeding a service dog something that can cause an adverse reaction could not only make the dog sick, but this would also mean the dog cannot work until it is better.  This would effectively take away the handler’s independence.

You may enjoy slipping your own dog a treat now and then, but doing so with service dogs can lead to negative consequences for both dog and handler. Service dogs are usually kept to a strict schedule of food and water and are not allowed food meant for human consumption. “People food” can upset the dog’s digestion and promote bad habits such as begging.

The most critical reason for not giving food to a service dog, however, has to do with where the dog accompanies its handler. Service dogs are granted access to anywhere the general public is allowed, including restaurants. If the dog is exposed to food meant for  humans and acquires a taste for it, the dog may develop unacceptable behaviors in a restaurant.

If you want to offer a service dog food, always ask first. Be aware that a handler is likely to say no. He or she is more likely to agree to the dog being offered water instead of food, especially if the weather is hot.

19. Never Make Assumptions About The Individual’s Intelligence, Feelings Or Capabilities.

Don’t try to take control in situations unfamiliar to the dog or handler.  Service dog handlers are normally very appreciative of others who ask them if they need any help. If you think a service dog handler may require help, ask before acting.  Usually the assistance dog team can get the task done on their own. Never attempt to control the dog, either with commands or by taking physical control of the leash, collar or harness, unless asked to do so by the handler. Do not attempt to physically move or direct a handler unless he or she has given you permission to do so.  If a service dog handler declines your offer to help, please respect his or her wishes.  Assistance dog teams may do things that seem unusual. The dog’s owner has been trained to handle their dog and how to be safe and effective in public.

20.  Do Not Walk Or Stand On The Same Side As The Dog; It May Become Distracted Or Confused, Or Be Forced To Work Around You.

Keep in mind that your physical presence might be a distraction at times. When walking alongside a working team, it is best to walk on the side of the handler opposite from where the dog is. Doing so gives the dog room to work and avoids the possibility of the dog needing to work around you.

21. Assistance Dogs Are Protected By Federal Law.

Interfering with the work of an assistance dog, harming the dog or killing the dog is a punishable crime. If a person or their animal is responsible for such things, charges would be filed and the person responsible would have to pay for damages and pay for the replacement of the assistance dog if it is no longer able to work.

22. Think Before You Speak

No one likes to have people stare, point, or hear personal comments from strangers.  Health and disabilities are private issues. Making comments to others about the handler and their dog is sometimes hurtful for the handler to hear.  Treat others the same as you want to be treated by them.

Please be aware of your actions and the effects these actions may have on others.  The best way to help the handler and the service dog is to respect their space and right to privacy.  By understanding the proper etiquette for interacting with an assistance dog team you can help keep things safe and positive for everyone.

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Gear, Tools, And Handling Methods

Do to the vast and varied nature of disabilities and medical conditions, assistance dog teams use an assortment of gear and training tools as vast and varied as the disabilities they might help compensate for.  A tool is defined as a device or implement used to carry out a particular function. Tools are not inherently good or bad by themselves.  It is how they are used that gives them those perceived qualities. Anyone can misuse or abuse a tool if they are not taught how to properly handle it.  When someone is properly taught how to use any tool, then that item simply remains as it is; a tool to be used for a specific purpose or function.

That being said, it should be realized that sometimes people working with assistance dogs might use certain types of gear or tools that others might find “questionable” because they misunderstand their purpose.  None of these things are cruel or cause any lasting harm or discomfort to the dog when they are used correctly, and the people who use them have been taught how to properly do so by professionals.  The primary reason such tools might be used is to help regain the dog’s focus easily or to redirect the dog when necessary.  In fact, some of them are necessary to ensure the safety of the handler and their dog.  Keep in mind people who use assistance dogs have disabilities of some sort that limit their life activities, a large majority of which are likely somehow physical in nature, even if they are not outwardly obvious. When we see someone in a power wheelchair who has limited function and use of their limbs, it is more easy to understand why that person might use a tool like an e-collar (tone, vibration)  or prong collar, because they likely lack the physical strength or dexterity to use other methods able bodied people might.

This same scenario could hold true for someone with widespread chronic pain and fatigue or conditions that cause weakness, numbness, or other limitations. It could be just as hard for a person with rheumatoid arthritis or neuropathy in their hands and wrists to control a dog without the aid of certain tools to easily regain the dog’s attention if the dog has a bad day and acts up a little.  These tools are sometimes necessary to keep the dog and handler safe.  Assistance dogs are living animals, not robots. Assistance dogs can have bad days just like people can. The main thing to remember is that assistance dogs are taught using positive reinforcement methods, and they really do love and enjoy working with their partners. Dogs evolved alongside humans to work with them, and have been bred for that purpose from the earliest days. People who use assistance dogs love their dogs deeply and form very strong bonds with them. The dogs are family and partners who provide freedom that wouldn’t otherwise be possible in most cases.  No assistance dog handler would risk anything that was harmful to their dog or that could result in the loss of freedom that dog provides.

Various gear and tools you may see an assistance dog wearing or a team using include, but are not limited to:

Work vest, standard harness, mobility harness, guide harness, flat collar, martingale collar, prong collar, e-collar, standard leash, hands-free leash,  gentle leader or other head collar, dog shoes, backpack systems, patches, bandanas, modified straps or handles, modified tug tools, modified target tools, dog coats, folding food/water dish, travel first aid kit, blanket, waste cleanup tools, or any combinations of these items and more.

When observing a team in action, you may also see the handler correct the dog’s behavior in ways you might not agree with. Called “leash corrections,” these methods most commonly include a sharp pull of the leash. Handlers use this tool to regain the dog’s attention if it is distracted or as a negative consequence for bad behavior.  Keep in mind service dogs are not pets.  They are held to much higher standards of behavior than pet dogs due to the nature of the work they do.  Pulling on a dog’s collar might seem cruel, but done correctly it does not hurt the dog. Handlers are trained by professionals in the appropriate ways of giving leash corrections. These methods of training and handling are necessary for both the dog and the handler and are meant to keep both out of danger.