3 Types of Service Dogs

In the United States, any dog assisting someone with a disability is considered a service dog (except for therapy dogs).

Legally speaking, therapy dogs are not “service dogs” and are not entitled to the same benefits that service dogs are (entrance to any public building or transportation).

Keep in mind that, according to the federal American Disabilities Act, any dog assisting someone with a disability is considered a service dog (except for therapy dogs). Service dogs are entitled to freely access buildings and transportation (buses, trains, planes). Proof or certification is not required, although many organizations that train service dogs give their handlers some sort of ID for their dog.

Here are a few various “types” of service dogs.

1. Dogs for the Blind

Dogs can be trained to guide blind people so that they are able to negotiate the world otherwise unassisted. They serve as, quite literally, the eyes for their owner. It is illegal anywhere in the U.S., or Canada, or Britain, and most other countries, to deny a blind person guided by a dog access to any public place. This includes stores, restaurants, banks, and anywhere else that dogs might be otherwise prohibited.

The Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. is quite clear on this point. The training for such dogs is quite demanding, as the dog must be able to navigate sidewalks, streets, stairs — avoiding all obstacles, including overhead ones that may injure its owner (but not itself). They must be able to ignore all distractions while doing their work.

Most commonly referred to as “Seeing-Eye Dogs” or “Guide Dogs,” there are in reality many organizations in the U.S. that provide guide dogs for blind people. However, while Guide Dogs for the Blind is on the west coast (along with Guide Dogs of the Desert and Guide Dogs of America, both in southern California, and Eye Dog Foundation in Arizona) and The Seeing Eye (among many others) is on the east, nearly all 15 schools in the United States serve people nationwide.

In fact, people can obtain a dog from any of the schools, save five (which serve only their own geographical regions), and many dogs from The Seeing Eye, Leader Dogs, Guiding Eyes and the other schools work on the west coast, while many dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind work all around the country. Geographical location is only one factor in selecting a guide dog training school to attend, and rarely is it the most important.

This is not the case in all countries with multiple guide dog training facilities. In the U.K., for example, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) operates several regional centers, and sends its applicants to the center nearest their home for training. All these regional centers are “branches” or “campuses” of the GDBA, unlike the diverse American dog guide schools, which are completely independent from one another. Unlike American schools, the GDBA’s regional training centers are centrally controlled, operating under the same set of policies, drawing from the same budget and using the same training methods.

In the United States and Canada, only Guide Dogs for the Blind has any “branches” or presence outside their central facility. Guide Dogs for the Blind is the first US guide dog training program to operate two facilities under the same administration, with its new campus in Boring, Oregon (the first class graduated September 1995).

The breeds used are yellow and black Labrador retrievers and German shepherd dogs, usually. Others can be used, such as golden retrievers, but usually the centers prefer to use dogs with a high recognition potential and some breeds simply seem to be better at being trained for guide service.

The breeds most commonly used as dog guides are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs.

  • Approximately 60-70 percent of all working guides in the United States are Labradors. (Yellow, black and chocolate labs are all used, though most Labradors used as guide dogs are yellow or black labs and some schools specifically do not use chocolates.)
  • Other breeds, such as boxers, flat- and curly-coated retrievers, border collies, huskies, doberman pinchers, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Australian shepherds, German short-haired pointers, dalmatians, and even standard poodles, are occasionally used by some programs.
  • Flat-coated retrievers, in particular, appear to be gaining popularity with guide dog training establishments.
  • Crosses of many of these breeds are also used, by some schools, with Lab-golden, Lab-GSD and GSD-huskie crosses most common. (In Britain and Australia, Labrador/golden and Labrador-poodle crosses (Labradoodles) are frequently used as guides, and far more crosses are used, in general, than by the U.S. schools.)

Some centers have their own breeding programs, such as Guide Dogs. Others use local breeders. The trend does seem to be toward proprietary breeding programs, although many of the stock, if not used as guide dogs will also compete in the more usual kennel club events. For example, CH Lobuff’s Bare Necessities (black Lab) was bred by the Guide Dog Foundation for the blind and is producing puppies for both the ring and the foundation.

Labs, goldens and shepherds are most popular as guides due to their temperament, intelligence, versatility, size and availability. Dogs trained as guide dogs must be intelligent, willing workers, large enough to comfortably guide in harness and small enough to be easily controlled and fit comfortably under restaurant tables and on buses and other forms of public transit.

The three common breeds used for this work were selected because a large number of individuals of these breeds met the requirements necessary for a good guide dog and these breeds could most easily be matched with the widest range of blind people and their needs in a guide. Additionally, these three breeds are popular in the United States and obtaining them for training or supplementing breeding stock has proved easier than obtaining less common, but perhaps equally suitable breeds.

Families who raise the puppies simply train them in basic dog obedience, and stress lots of socialization and good manners. For example, if you go to a dog show, you are likely to see several such puppies there, learning to take it all in stride. The dogs go back for their formal training when they’re about 1.5 years old, although they can go back as young as 1 year old.

Children are usually preferred as puppy raisers, hence many coordinate with 4-H programs. Interestingly enough, the puppies raised by kids are more likely to make it through the formal guide dog training. The difference is not drastic, but is “significant.”

Volunteer puppy raisers are encouraged to expose their charges to as many new experiences as possible, observing the pups’ reactions and providing positive reassurance and security for the puppies as they experience crowds, cars, strange buildings, other animals and much more. They also teach the dogs some of the basic obedience commands such as “sit” and “down,” but the dogs’ instructors will insure that the dogs know these and other obedience commands in addition to instructing them in guide work, itself.

When dogs go back for their training they’re carefully screened for any hip abnormalities and other health problems. If the hips aren’t very good they’re immediately “retired.” The formal training takes about 6 months.

Dogs can fail for a variety of reasons. As you might guess, some dogs don’t transition well from living in a puppy raiser’s home to living in the kennels and others just get stressed out and fail. The puppy raiser gets the option of keeping a dog that failed. If the puppy raiser can’t keep the dog they can place it in a home. Waiting lists for such dogs are usually several years long!

Before a guide dog is given to a blind person the blind person must usually attend training at center. This training is several weeks long and during this time the blind person will live on site. People coming back to get a replacement dog usually take a “refresher” class.

A few smaller programs conduct “in home” training, in which an instructor brings a trained dog to the student and trains the team in their own home area. This is the most rapidly growing area of dog guide training, with three new home training programs started since 1990. Most of these programs are small 1–2 trainer operations and do not ever plan to serve as many people as the residential programs can. All home training programs currently limit their service to their own region of the country, serving only those applicants in their own and neighboring states.

There are pros and cons to both types of training, and they serve people with different needs and expectations. The majority of guide dog handlers still choose to attend class at a residential training facility to receive and train with their dogs.

There are, in addition to residential training schools and home training programs, a few private trainers of dog guides and a few blind people who train their own guides.

There are 15 established programs in the United States that train dog guides for the blind (as well as several in Canada and in other countries around the world, of course.) Of these, Fidelco, Southeastern, 2 new schools in New York state, (Upstate Guide Dog Association and Freedom Guide Dogs), and a very recently established program in Oregon (Northwest Guiding Eyes) serve only people from their own “region.” The rest serve anyone from the United States or abroad.

2. Hearing and Signal Dogs

Other dogs are trained to assist deaf people, with varying degrees of impairment. They alert their humans to a variety of sounds, usually by coming up to the person and going back to the source of the sound. They will signal on door bell and knocking, phones, smoke alarms, crying babies and much more.

In the United States, they enjoy the same rights of access as guide dogs and are to be permitted anywhere, although since they are not as widely recognized, their humans often have to display an identification card even though this is not legally required.

3. Assistance Dogs

Here is a large and varied category of dogs who assist their owners in ways other than the traditional guide dogs or hearing dogs do. These dogs might help pick things up, open and close doors, pull wheelchairs, and dozens of other physical assistance tasks.

Assistance Dog International (ADI)

ADI is a nonprofit organization which is an association of other non-profit organizations which do training for hearing and mobility assist dogs. They are working on a test for street certification for the hearing and mobility assist dogs. The idea is to come up with a test that can be the standard for the United States rather than having each state/county having different standards.

They also have information on many training organizations in the United States. They check out reports of problems with assist dog trainers (read rip-off artists).

Canine Companions for Independence

CCI was founded in 1975. They estimate that each of their dogs takes about $20,000 to train, a cost covered by donations and volunteer work. It is a nationwide organization with many regional chapters.

This organization is involved in training dogs to assist handicapped people. They train signal dogs for the deaf, and dogs for physically disabled or developmentally disabled persons.

Canine Companions for Independence has provided highly skilled assistance dogs for people with disabilities since 1975. CCI started as a small, at-home organization and has grown into a dynamic non-profit agency with five regional centers nationwide.

A Canine Companion’s specialized training starts in a volunteer puppy raiser’s home between 7 and 8 weeks of age. The puppy raiser is responsible for the young dog’s care, socialization, and the teaching of basic commands. At about one year of age, the dog is returned to a CCI regional training center for six months of advanced training by a professional CCI instructor. The dog is then ready for an intensive two-to-three week training camp where its new owner learns to work with a fully trained dog.

It costs thousands of dollars to breed, raise, and train each Canine Companion, yet recipients pay only some small application and training supplies fees. The dog is provided free of charge. CCI depends entirely on donations; it does not receive government funds. CCI also relies heavily on the dedication of its many volunteers, who play a vital role in CCI’s mission to provide exceptional dogs for exceptional people.

The breeds CCI uses for service and social dogs are black and yellow Labs, golden retrievers, German shepherds, and Lab/golden retriever mix. CCI is moving away from using German shepherds for two reasons: first, a lot of the public view (and fear) German shepherds as “police” or “guard” dogs, and second, German shepherds bond very strongly to people and the program is difficult on them because first they form a strong bond to their puppy raiser, then to their trainer when they go back to CCI, and then to their eventual handicapped owner. For signal dogs they use corgis and border collies.

CCI will work with people in need of assistance to determine if a properly trained dog can provide that assistance. Dogs can be taught to retrieve a variety of things — even to distinguish between specific items — and to manipulate a variety of objects. Monkeys have been tried for this purpose, as they are more dexterous. However, they are not as reliably trainable and are very expensive, so dogs present a much more practical alternative. Given some extensions, such as rope handles on doors and light switches, dogs can give a disabled person complete mobility within her or his home.

CCI finds and trains a variety of dogs for different forms of assistance: hearing dogs, physically disabled assistant dogs, even as therapy dogs. They are all neutered, as with guide dogs. People who are to receive one of the dogs are required to attend a two-week seminar to learn how to communicate and care for their assistance. As needed, the people and their dogs are provided with permits that identify the dogs as licensed canine companions — this is enough to gain undisputed entry into most places, as with the more well-known Seeing Eye dogs.

National Education for Assistance Dog Services, Inc. (NEADS)

NEADS is a nonprofit organization that trains hearing, service, specialty, social and service dogs for the classroom.

A hearing dog responds to important sounds such as fire alarm or smoke alarm, telephone ringing, door knock or bell, baby crying a person’s name being called or household appliances. The dog goes back and forth to the sound until his deaf or hard of hearing human partner follows him to the source of the sound.

A service dog retrieves and moves for a person who has a physical disability or uses a wheelchair. The dog goes for help, picks up things that drop, retrieves from high selves, turns on light switches, pulls the wheelchair and carriers essentials.

A specialty dog does many of the same tasks for a person who has multiple disabilities, such as deafness and physical disabilities, and needs more specialized help. Services can be trained as needed.

A social dog works for children and adults who cannot assume total responsibility for a working dog but can benefit from the therapeutic value of a dog. They are trianed for residential settings such as nursing homes, halfway houses and psychotherapy centers. They have the advanced skills of a service dog but can be sometimes handled by a third party. They are certified for public access.

A service dog for the classroom is an innovative teaching tool used by social workers, therapists, early education and special needs teachers working with children with physical, emotional and developmental disabilities. The dogs help them teach basic concepts like “up,” “under,” “down.” Children with histories of sexual or physical abuse often need a catalyst to prompt disclosure. An assistance dog, nonjudgmental and unconditionally loving, provides the help necessary to identify children in crisis.

NEADS uses facility-based education, a concept of impressive success. This developes a strong working relationship between client ad dog while training together for two weeks, learning to work as a team under the expert supervision of staff. When they leave clients are then fully responsible for the handling, care and health of their with continued NEADS outreach support.

NEADS has trained close to 600 dogs for the above mentioned work. This year is NEADS 20th year of providing assistance dog services. NOTE: that 75 percent of the dogs trained by NEADS are pound/shelter rescues.

In the United States, therapy dogs are not entitled to the same benefits that service dogs are.

A Note About Therapy Dogs

Dogs are quite often used in therapy. Typically this involves visiting hospitals, care facilities, nursing homes, etc. to cheer up patients. There are a variety of groups that train therapy dogs, some local and some national. Some use the AKC Canine Good Citizen test to choose suitable dogs, others have devised their own temperament tests.

Note that therapy dogs are not considered by law in the United States to have the same status as service dogs. Service dogs directly assist their handicapped people with daily tasks in some fashion; therapy dogs are handled to assist others at specific times, such as visits to a facility.

Thus laws mandating access for service dogs, who must accompany their people, do not apply to dogs who need not be with their humans at all times but rather work at specific locations.

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