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What is a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a Service Dog as a dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. The public often confuses service dogs with therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. When seeking help for your child, it is important to understand the difference.

A service dog is individually trained to provide specific assistance to an individual with a disability. Under the ADA, service dogs have equal access to all areas where the public is normally allowed, including schools, hospitals, governmental offices, businesses, restaurants, parks and non-profit organizations.

Therapy dogs and emotional support dogs do not have equal access under the ADA.
• Therapy dogs are individually trained to work with a specific handler in a facility that voluntarily allows therapy dog programs. Examples include reading programs in libraries and schools, visitation programs in hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement facilities, animal assisted therapy programs in psychology or rehabilitation facilities, and emotional support programs in law offices and courtrooms. Your special needs child may benefit greatly from these programs, but the dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA.
• Emotional support dogs provide emotional support to individuals diagnosed with a disability. However, the dog is not individually trained to perform a specific task for the disabled person. Although not covered under the ADA, The Virginia Fair Housing Act grants equal access to housing for disabled people with emotional support dogs. Therefore, a landlord who does not normally allow pets is required to rent to a disabled person who has an emotional support dog.

What is a Special Needs Child?

To be protected by the ADA, a person must have a disability, defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Most issues that fall under the umbrella of special needs would also be classified as disabilities under the ADA. Many parents of special needs children have found that a service dog can greatly improve the quality of life for their child, as well as decrease their own anxiety and frustration (see photo with caption).

With very few exceptions, a service dog can accompany your special needs child almost anywhere. Here are just a few examples of the types of assistance provided to children by service dogs.

• Physical Assistance Dogs are trained to assist children with limited mobility, hearing, or sight. Dogs may be trained to guide children, alert them to important sounds, open doors, and retrieve the phone, medicines and other items.
• Mental Health Assistance Dogs are trained to assist children diagnosed with cognitive or emotional disabilities such as Asperger’s, Autism, Developmental Delays, Panic Attacks and PTSD. Dogs may be trained to prevent impulsive running, facilitate transition between locations and activities, facilitate social interaction, provide calming behavior during stressful events and improve communication.
• Medical Alert Assistance Dogs are trained to alert children when their blood glucose levels are low, when the onset of a seizure is imminent or when specific allergens are in the environment. Dogs are often trained to retrieve insulin or allergy kits, and to go find an adult.

Important Information: The ADA does not require registration or certification for service dogs. A quick Internet search finds many commercial listings that sell service dogs, or sell service dog registration, certification, ID cards, vests, etc. Please beware. Unfortunately, there are no state or federal laws governing the service dog industry. Your best source of information is the ADA website and the ADI website. ADI is an international not-for-profit organization that provides accreditation to service dog organizations that meet their standards for training and placement of assistance dogs, and for training of staff and volunteers.

About the Author: Caryn Self-Sullivan owns and operates Ask Dr. Caryn About Animal Behavior and Training, which serves the Greater Fredericksburg Area. She has a Ph.D. in animal behavior and certifications from multiple professional dog training organizations, including CPDT-KA and KPA CTP. She is a volunteer puppy raiser for Service Dogs of Virginia, which is a non-profit organization that provides Service dogs to Virginians at no cost.


service dog dentist

Our son is pictured here at the dentist, with his service dog, Sherlock, on his lap. We were exhausted. Our son couldn’t sleep, so no one did. We had many tools, resources, and therapies, but our son needed something more.

Enter Sherlock, from Service Dogs of Virginia. Now, on outings, our son casually holds onto Sherlock’s vest, stopping often for petting breaks and smooches, chitchatting happily with anyone who asks about his dog. We go for long hikes; we visit museums and go to movies, waiting patiently in long lines with Sherlock. Our son now has neater handwriting. He’s shown improvements in his speech, he’s made reading gains, and is now sleeping through the night. The sounds of crying and anxiety have been replaced completely by the sound of a dog snoring. Our son comes home after school and plays wildly with Sherlock. Instead of having a tantrum, I hear laughter bubbling up from the backyard.

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