Service dogs are a vital resource for people who suffer from a disability or condition that makes it difficult to function in their daily lives. This means that service dogs must meet a very high standard; otherwise, they cannot provide the degree of quality that their owners need. Additionally, if a service dog is not trained properly and does not meet the right standards, it could pose a risk to their owners or even other people.
Needless to say, not every dog meets the necessary criteria to work as a service dog. Thousands of dogs fail to do so every year. However, this does not mean that these dogs are aggressive or untrainable. It simply means they are not cut out to be service dogs, though they could still be in the future with the right training.
In some cases, a service dog might be paired with an owner in need, only to find out later that the dog and owner are not a good match. Though this is not as common, it can still lead to the same outcome. When a service dog fails to meet the necessary standards, it can no longer work as a service dog.
Finally, health is one of the most common reasons that a dog can no longer work as a service dog. After many years of service, many dogs cannot physically carry out the same tasks that they could as younger animals. As a result, these “career change dogs” will need to find a different home to retire.
That said, dogs that do not meet the standards to be service animals can still be perfectly gentle, playful, and affectionate pets. Additionally, just like any other domestic animal, they need a loving home to call their own.
So, what are the standards that a service dog must meet? What does it take to fail as a service dog? And how can you adopt a failed service dog? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first let’s take a look at what it means to be a service dog, and which services these animals provide:
What is a Service Dog?
Service dogs can improve the lives of people afflicted with a wide range of disabilities, whether they are physical, neurological, or psychiatric. Service dogs can be trained to assist with disabilities like:
- Anxiety disorders
- Hearing Impairment
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS or PTSD)
- Severe Allergies
- Spinal Cord Injuries
- Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
These dogs can be custom trained based on a person’s unique needs. When a person is suffering from a diagnosed condition, a service dog can be assigned as part of their treatment plan to assist with certain activities and symptoms. The following are a few common examples:
Service dogs can provide alerts:
- To people approaching
- As a response to your name being called or someone trying to get your attention
- For specific sounds, such as alarms, ringtones, sirens, or vehicles backing up
- For specific smells, such as smoke or gas
- Seeking help from someone else when you are having a medical emergency
- Pressing a medical alert button for designated emergency contact
Services dogs can keep you calm by:
- Applying or receiving deep pressure therapeutically
- Cuddling on cue
- Interrupting repetitive movements or compulsive behaviors
- Leading you to an uncrowded area or place to sit down
- Responding to an anxiety or panic attack
- Interrupting nightmares or night terrors
Service dogs can help detect:
- Allergens, such as specific foods or triggering odors
- Low blood sugar levels
- The presence or absence of people in a designated area or location
- Changes in cortisol levels
Service dogs can provide support in:
- Retrieving personal items, such as keys or cell phones
- Carrying items for you
- Opening, holding, and closing doors
- Bringing medication to you at a designated time
- Turning on and off lights
- Providing a foundation to steady yourself or helping you stand up
- Tugging or holding clothing, socks and shoes to assist with dressing and undressing
- Pulling to assist manual wheelchair propulsion
It is important to note the differences between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. Service animals (typically dogs) have been trained to perform specific tasks that a person is incapable of performing on their own. For this reason, service animals are allowed in public spaces where other animals (possibly including emotional support animals) may not be allowed to go.
Alternatively, emotional support animals are not trained in specific tasks, nor are there as many limitations on the types of animals that qualify; dogs, cats, birds, and even miniature horses can qualify as emotional support animals. In the United States, the Fair Housing Act covers the legal definitions of emotional support animals. These laws help protect emotional support animals and their owners when attempting to rent a living space. So, if you or someone close to you suffers a condition that is not considered severe enough to warrant a service animal, an emotional support animal may be the best option for you.
Those dealing with mental health issues also have the option of seeking treatment with a therapy dog, but this is a little more complicated, as therapy animals are often used exclusively in treatment facilities. To put it simply, a therapy dog is any dog that meets certain criteria required to provide psychological and emotional support to an individual. However, by this definition, most dogs would probably qualify. Many people adopt dogs for this very purpose: to provide emotional support and companionship. In reality, therapy dogs are used for specific intervention treatments for those suffering from any kind of mental pain or debilitation.
Therapy dogs can be used for a variety of circumstances. For example, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and hospice care facilities often use therapy dogs to combat loneliness and depression among the residents. When children (or adults) suffer the loss of a close family member, therapy dogs are a great way to encourage healing and help the individual cope with emotional trauma.
It is important to note that there are different kinds of therapy dogs that all serve different purposes. Generally, therapy dogs can be divided into three categories:
- Therapeutic Visitation Dogs – This is the most common type of therapy dog. These pets and their owners visit hospitals, mental health facilities, and other healthcare centers to prevent patients from feeling lonely, disconnected, or hopeless.
- Animal Assisted Therapy Dog – This type of therapy dog is generally reserved for rehabilitation clinics. Under the guidance of a trained physiotherapist, these dogs help patients regain mobility through various motor-control activities.
- Facility Therapy Dog – These dogs are often used exclusively in elderly care facilities to alert staff of any issues with the patients. They also provide companionship to the residents, many of whom do not have any living friends or relatives outside of the facility.
What Criteria Must a Service Dog Meet?
Technically, a service dog only needs to meet two specific criteria:
- A service dog must perform a task to mitigate a disability.
- A service dog must be properly trained to perform this task.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about “certifications” and service dog IDs. In reality, your dog does not need to have any ID or pass a legally-mandated test. That said, for the safety of you and your service animal, you need to ensure that the animal is up to the task. Additionally, if you want to obtain a service animal through a third party, USSA can help with that process.
While there are no strict rules for adopting, training, and utilizing a service dog, there are some general guidelines that should be followed:
Step 1: Adopt
The first and most important step for owning a service dog is choosing which one to adopt. You will want to do your research, as certain breeds are better suited for certain services than others. You can also consult professional dog trainers and veterinary professionals to get advice on choosing the best dog for the job.
However, you should not just worry about the breed, because this is not a sure indication of a dog’s personality, behavior, or temperament. For example, you might find a golden retriever that is not very sociable and does not like to be touched (even though this is generally not the case), while you could find a breed that is not generally associated with therapy or disability work, like a rottweiler or pit bull, that is perfectly suited to mitigate a disability. At the end of the day, it will come down to the individual dog.
So, once you have done your homework on breeds and traits to look out for, you will need to visit a shelter in your area. We always recommend adopting dogs, rather than buying from a breeder. Shelter dogs are often some of the most loving, friendly animals you can find. While dogs can become service animals at any age, it is much easier to train dogs if you adopt them as puppies. That said, older dogs can be just as loving and obedient as the younger ones.
When you have found a dog that you think meets the necessary criteria, be sure to spend time with him or her in order to play, relax, and observe their behavior and temperament. It’s pretty easy to tell if a dog is well-suited for given tasks.
Finally, it is recommended that you have your dog spayed or neutered. This cuts down on aggressive behavior for both male and female dogs.
Step 2: Train
Once you have chosen a dog to take home, you will need to begin the training process as soon as possible. While there are various methods for training dogs, we recommend that you consult a professional. Many dog owners prefer to do the training themselves, but getting advice from people who train animals for a living can save you time and help ensure that your dog is ready to become a service animal.
Once it is determined that a dog has the right temperament for the job, they will need to undergo training. The type of training that a service animal needs will depend on the type of service animal. Generally, there are 8 types of service dogs, each with their own required skill sets:
- Guide dog
- Hearing dog
- Diabetic alert dog
- Mobility assistance dog
- Seizure response dog
- Autism support dog
- Allergy detection dog
- Psychiatric service dog
In general, you will want to make sure that your dog exhibits certain positive behaviors and avoids negative ones. For example, dogs that like to jump on people, bark excessively, or chew on things will not qualify. Additionally, dogs that are overly shy and do not like to approach people will not make the cut either.
Therefore, you will need to make sure that your dog exhibits the following traits:
- Relaxed (not easily startled)
How Does a Dog Fail to Become a Service Dog?
In short, a dog fails to become a service dog if it fails to meet the above criteria. More specifically, a dog cannot be a service dog if it cannot accomplish its designated tasks. Additionally, there are a few traits that all training dogs will need, regardless of the specific conditions of their owner:
- Heeling – Every service dog must be trained to “heel.” This means that the dog will stop and stay in a specific location when directed to do so by its owner.
- Proofing – This trait is extremely important. “Proofing” refers to a dog’s ability to ignore all irrelevant distractions. While an untrained dog will be tempted to chase squirrels, a service dog will know that this is unacceptable.
- Tasking – Most importantly, a service dog will need to know how to carry out specific tasks to mitigate a disability. For example, if someone has a disability that makes it difficult to move, a service dog will need to be able to open doors, retrieve items, and help their owner if they fall down.
If a dog does not have all of the above traits and proper training, it will fail to become a service dog. That said, even failed service dogs need loving homes. So, how can you adopt a failed service dog?
How to Adopt a Failed Service Dog
Adopting a failed service dog is actually pretty simple. There are many organizations that help match failed service dogs with good homes. In some cases, these dogs may not have any behavioral problems but may have outgrown the job. Much like people, older dogs suffer from vision and hearing loss, which can make it difficult to perform certain tasks. As a result, these “career change dogs” must be assigned to a new home.
Do you want to adopt a failed service dog? If so, we are here to help. Please visit usserviceanimals.org for more information!