Health Article. Distinctions in Dogs and Other Animals who Work in Public.

Animals can have public roles as well as being part of their family at home. The ways in which dogs (as well as the occasional cat, rabbit, pig, or miniature horse) serve are increasing. That makes education increasingly important.

Because the rights and responsibilities of the handler, dog, or pair differ in different settings, this post is about three roles working dogs can have in public: They can be therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, or assistance/service dogs. Over time, our dogs have served in all three roles, in addition to being loving, therapeutic pets.

THERAPY DOGS are certified as a team with a specific handler by a therapy dog organization or by the place/business/hospital, etc. where the team works. The dog is healthy, very well-trained and therapeutic for the people he or she visits at the specified location.

When my dog and I visited a major, urban medical center, we visited the waiting room where families stayed while awaiting news of loved ones in surgery. Tucket very gently would go from person to person, pausing for people who called out to him or asked me to let him visit. People petted him, talked in his ear, cried in his coat, and the occasional small child lay against him on the carpeted floor. We also visited patients, including patients in intensive care units. I could lift Tuck onto the bed or have him go from chair to bed. He would lie still and let the patient curl themselves around him and he would not move until I gave him the ok command. This sometimes meant my 50-pound bearded collie was lying against a seriously ill child or adult with multiple lines in place. There was never an incident where he brushed, disturbed, or tore anything.

Tucket had only the public rights any pet has in a large city. He was a pet with a gift. He was allowed in the hospital because the hospital had accredited him and me as a therapy team. Tucket’s work helped patients, visitors, and staff, but he was there for them, not me. I was his chauffeur and navigator.

In contrast, an EMOTIONAL SUPPORT DOG has a therapeutic role for his or her person, providing a calming focus point when the individual is in or out of the home. The dog is not trained to provide any specific service or alert signal for the handler. The law gives them the same public rights as any other pet or a therapy dog.

A dog that is trained to do one or more tasks for the handler that lessen or counterbalance a disability is a SERVICE or ASSISTANCE dog. This includes a dog trained to provide a service for someone with an emotional or other neuropsychiatric condition. The handler’s disability need not be visible.

When I started writing this, a friend told me about a mutual acquaintance with military service-related PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Their dog is trained to walk in circles around the person when other, unknown people are present so a psychologically safe space is maintained around the handler. This means the dog is more than emotional support. He is a service dog.

Service dogs are not considered pets, while both of the types of working dogs we have discussed so far, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs, are legally pets. Service dogs are considered durable medical equipment. Instead of a white cane, a blind person may use a service dog. Their bond with the dog is significant, but under the law the dog is a tool to accommodate their disability. Hence, the dog has to be allowed anywhere the person is allowed to be.

These dogs are distinct in the fact they are trained to do specific tasks that lessen the impairment caused by the handler’s disability. Furthermore, they are matched to a single handler. The handler and dog are a working unit, a functional team, and that gives the dog (as part of an accommodation of a person’s disability) different rights in public. If the person can access public transit, an arena, or a shopping district, so can the dog when with them. The person cannot be penalized for using a dog rather than a nonliving tool.

(In the USA, the rights and responsibilities of the person and dog are determined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.)

Of my five bearded collies, two instinctively alerted me to seizures before they occurred. My Bjorn not only alerts to oncoming migraines or seizures by herding me to a chair or the bed before I feel the first symptoms, he also has alerted three times to severe low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), in the latter case by licking my face and aggressively trying to get me up and active.

Because of Bjorn’s innate behaviors, including sitting with me and licking my face after a fall despite our being in a preferred place for him to play (and I did not have hold of his lead), we decided to take my doctor’s advice and send Bjorn for dedicated training.

He came home a week ago. Now he reliably walks with me when I use a rollator (one of the problems associated with my brain injury is poor balance), sitting every time I stop and sitting or lying beside me if I sit. He still practices his instinctive behaviors. We consider him a service dog in training and will move to extended practice work in public places. I would also like to train him to pick up an item I drop.

All of my dogs have been wonderful, molding my life and enlarging my heart. I worked with Tucket when I had moderate disabilities that did not affect my overall function. It was a gift of service I will never forget in the same way the people who were loved and calmed by my dog will not forget him.

Bjorn is a young adult at a time I am disabled, not simply living with disability. He will enable me to have a public life that would otherwise not be possible. It is important to know what role a dog is playing so you ignore or react to the handler/dog pair appropriately. Tucket wore a bandana with the hospital’s logo and he and I had IDs. I welcomed people who politely asked to pet him.

When I go with Bjorn, he wears a vest so he knows we are “working” and other people know he is working. I would not interact with another person’s working service dog, and I do not want the burden of people interacting with Bjorn when he is working.

Know the ways dogs can have public lives. Respect their abilities and the boundaries on interacting with them in public. Please do not abuse the rights given working dogs in different settings so you can be with your pet more of the time or in different public places. I have seen service dogs approached aggressively by an unknown dog twice. I have had to ask people not to try to pet Bjorn.

Experiences of your own, either working with a dog or seeing a handler/dog team in action? Please share. Questions? Please ask.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c)

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