CAN A SERVICE DOG BE TRAINED TO SERVE TWO OR MORE PEOPLE?

Service dogs are defined by law as: “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, *calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.”  *Unfortunately, there are still many agencies who don’t believe or follow this definition, as PTSD dogs come, more, under the heading of “Therapy” Dogs.  The law even makes it sound like it is impossible for a dog to serve more than one person; or, perhaps, it could even be illegal if they do!  Or, maybe, if they are serving more than one, particular person, they are “NOT” a true Service Dog.

However, the law, also, says that “Service animals are working animals, not pets!”  This can be a pretty ‘gray’ area; especially, when the Service Dog is more of a “Therapy or Comfort” dog.  Even in the above definition, regarding PTSD, many doctors, buildings, business owners, or so-called “Experts” can’t decide if the person with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is receiving, “Comfort, Therapy, Service or Companionship” from the animal!  To reiterate the law: “The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.  Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”  So, where does PTSD come in?  And, if a dog is trained to aid PTSD, are they ONLY allowed to treat/comfort ONLY their owner?  The law doesn’t say if the Service Dog ONLY has to be for one person or not; but, it sounds like it can’t!  But then, what about people like myself; who has, not only, a personal Service Dog, but the same dog being an “Office Service Dog”… who helps patients who come in? She is, also, a “Therapy” and “Comfort” dog for certain patients! The law (and people pushing the issue) makes it sound like a dog can do “one thing only;” and, I have had certain restaurants argue the fact with me!  But, with an Office Service Dog, this, certainly, cannot be the case.  One can argue that “Yes,” this is MY dog, but how do I tell or teach the dog not to treat, comfort or care for someone who is in need of her services?

Let’s start off with a little story.  Recently, I had someone come into my office for foot treatment; but, during that time a passing car ‘backfired’ and that patient began to have an anxiety attack and cry; as they have severe PTSD from serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  My own, personal, Service Dog, Hershey, is trained to detect dangerous blood sugar levels.  However, she also is trained to be a “Therapy Dog;” not that I need it so much, but I wanted her trained for my patients.

Noticing this man crying, (and just sensing, that he had high levels of anxiey) she came out from under my desk (where she likes to stay out of the way) and went over to this person to provided “support/service” by offering them love, sympathy and “someone/something” to hold until their anxiety had reduced to a manageable level.  Below, is a photo, similar, to what happened.  But, as with most dogs, Hershey’s behavior, when it comes to seeing someone upset, is more instinctive than trained.

 Picture2

Of course, my patient needs, perhaps, medications, talk therapy, support groups and/or other therapies to help deal with this disorder.  But, when a dog comes up and ’empathically’ helps someone (in the case, a total stranger) in distress, I call that “SERVICE!” And, a good Service Dog, will instinctively know when to help someone!  I don’t see any more difference between my dog helping to calm down an emotionally distraught person than I do her helping someone up out of a chair, of which she was trained, or to lead someone to the bathroom!  Again, “OK,” yes, she is MY Service dog; but, she is, also, the “OFFICE” Service Dog as well; meaning, that if someone needs help she can provide, she offers it!  She is not fitting the “Letter of the Law,” by helping only one person; and some, unfortunately, would take exception to that!

Fortunately or unfortunately, nobody has ever explained the difference between being a Service, Comfort, Therapy or even Pet, to Hershey!  She just sees if someone has a problem – either by recognizing it through training, such as with Low Blood Sugar, or being naturally sympathetic; and thus, naturally, going to help them.

Here is another example – I wrote about on Facebook sometime back; we were in a very public situation (petstore) for some additional training in walking on/off leash.  The trainer was teaching Hershey better skills, when the two of them were approached by a woman.  She stated “how cute” Hershey was in her purple Service vest and asked if she could pet her?  The trainer told her “No,” as Hershey was “working and part of her training was not to be petted or distracted while working.”  The woman understood, but Hershey seem determined she meet the woman. (And, Hershey is not the most social animal when meeting strangers on the street).  I gave permission for the woman to meet Hershey, and surprisingly, Hershey went to great lengths to put her face in the woman’s face… sniffing.  The woman said, “she must be able to smell what I ate for lunch.”  “Or,” the trainer said, “she has been trained to detect low blood sugar.” The woman stated, “Well, I am diabetic!”  The trainer replied, “Perhaps, you should go check your blood sugar, then;” which the woman, quickly, left to do!

Was Hershey being MY “Service Dog?”  Not by some business standards, because she didn’t ONLY detect MY blood sugar!  Was she a “Comfort Dog?”  She made the woman feel better, by her knowing that she might have a blood sugar problem which needed to be addressed.  Did she offer “Therapy?” Well, no… but, sort of?  Or, was she being a “Pet;” as she was not undergoing Service Dog Training at the time, but general behavior training?  Ask ten different people what happened, and they will give you ten different answers!

Once again, the law says; “A service animal is a dog or other animal, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”   It doesn’t say “Person’s or People.”  I have diabetes.  Am I disabled?  No… just diabetic?  Then, why do I need a dog to help me detect low blood sugar BEFORE I am ready to pass out and go into a diabetic coma?  And, exactly “how” do I teach Hershey to “ignore” any and all detections of Low Blood Sugar, except mine?  If she is in my office, and performs this task on a patient, is she performing a Service to me or that person with the Low Blood Sugar?  This area is becoming more and more “gray!”

Let’s look at one more example and YOU make the determination (or, at least find the gray area)!  Another patient of mine has a granddaughter with severe autism.  She is 5 years old and has never spoken a word.  She recently met Hershey, while sitting on the floor, holding her “baby doll.”  I introduced her to the little girl and her grandmother, while saying “This is MY baby!” (You see, Hershey is more than just a work associate, and  she is more than just MY Service Dog… she is a member of the family!  Pet?  OK!) The little girl, smiled, at Hershey, and said “Baby!”  It was her first word!  Her thrilled mother, pointed to Hershey’s eyes, and said “Eyes?”  And the little girl repeated the word, “Eyes!”  The little girl saw something in Hershey, that brought out enough attention to say her first words!  Had this been just someone’s pet?  Who knows?  Perhaps, it would have had the same outcome; although, the little girls grandmother has a small dog that the little girl appears terrified of.  Was it Hershey’s training to be sympathetic? Again, who knows? Did Hershey see someone who needed her attention?  I, at least, like to think so!  So, what type of dog was Hershey?  She wasn’t “working” for me at that moment!  And, again, she didn’t fit the “Letter of the Law!”

I should think this little girl will be getting her own Service/Comfort/Therapy/Pet… soon! 

Service animals can take the form of ANYTHING; companion to someone with Asperger’s,  a shoulder to cry on to someone with Depression, a Therapist to help relieve stress and anxiety, a helper or guide for the sightless, ears for the hearing impaired, something to offer protection, someone to sleep with or even just a friend or companion to the lonely and someone to love! And, they don’t have to do it for just one person! 

Even if it is something as simple as having a guest or patient ask to use our bathroom, Hershey is providing A Service for them, just by leading them to the appropriate door… and she doesn’t have to be their own, personally trained, Service Animal!

Perhaps, it is time to “update” the law to define function better, and to help the general public understand it better!

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