A year and a half after a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Kelsey Ibach and her boyfriend decided to go their separate ways. Ibach moved into her own apartment in Chicago’s River North neighborhood; it was the first time she’d lived alone with a disability. But it wasn’t long before she welcomed a new partner into her life—Bailey, a 75-pound golden retriever.
When the two met at a training class at MidAmerica Service Dogs, the connection was instant. “I came back the following week and I remember rolling through the door and he just lit up when he saw me,” says Ibach, who uses a manual wheelchair. “We only worked together for one hour the week before. It was pretty crazy how fast we bonded.”
First, she had to learn to speak his language—Bailey understands more than 100 commands, far more than your average pet dog. But after a few months of training, Ibach and Bailey were officially paired. Now he’s her constant companion, turning on lights for her, retrieving her phone if she drops it, and guiding her through airports and baggage claim when she travels to see her current boyfriend, who lives in Dallas.
“He is a total part of my family,” she says, though caring for him can feel like as much work as parenting. (“it’s sometimes like traveling with a toddler; a good chunk of my baggage is taken up by Bailey’s stuff,” Ibach says). The challenges—and rewards—are all worth considering if you’re contemplating a service dog of your own.
What’s the official definition of a service dog?
As outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are trained to perform one or more specific tasks for a person with a disability. You might also hear the terms "assistance dogs," "guide dogs," or "hearing dogs," among others.
Per the ADA, people with disabilities are allowed to bring their service dogs into any public space; they’re specifically bred and selected for their suitable temperaments, says Chris Diefenthaler, operations administrator for Assistance Dogs International (ADI), an umbrella organization that sets standards for training these animals.
This makes service dogs different from therapy dogs or facility dogs, which assist more than one person—for example, dogs who work in hospitals or special education classrooms, or with doctors or therapists. These dogs aren’t allowed in all public places the same way service dogs are, Diefenthaler says.
It also makes service dogs significantly different from emotional support animals, who may not receive any specialized training at all, says Rose Reif, a rehabilitation counselor in Cary, North Carolina, who offers therapy to adults with disabilities. It’s a sore point for people who train or utilize service dogs.
“Everyone wants emotional support; don’t we all? That’s why we have pet dogs,” says Kyria Henry, founder of Wilmington, North Carolina-based paws4people. But that doesn’t allow you the right to take your animal with you everywhere. Having untrained animals in public spaces makes it harder for people with legitimate service dogs to advocate for themselves and for those dogs to do their jobs.
Even service dogs aren’t given carte blanche, Diefenthaler points out—business owners can legally ask handlers to remove them if they’re out of control, either in their behavior or their bodily functions. And if a service dog for some strange reason trashes a hotel room, its handler can be asked to pay for damages just like anyone else (although they can’t be charged an up-front pet fee or deposit).
What types of tasks do service dogs perform?
Guide dogs for people with visual impairment are perhaps the best-known type. They help a person who can’t see well or at all avoid obstacles and navigate changing traffic, says Kristin Lucas, vice president of training operations for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Hearing dogs alert people who are deaf or have limited hearing to important noises, such as alarms and doorbells.
But that barely scratches the surface of what service animals can do. “I’ve yet to see all of the diagnoses that we will place a dog for,” Henry says. She might not even have heard of your condition, but if you describe your symptoms and how they affect your daily life, Henry can tell you how a dog might be able to ease them. Mobility dogs like Bailey can open doors, retrieve dropped objects, take out the trash, or do laundry. When Ibach wants to move from her chair to the couch, Bailey braces his body so she can lean on him for support.
With the right training, dogs can calm children with autism by applying pressure or shifting their focus, smell low blood glucose on the breath of people with diabetes, or even detect early warning signs of seizures, then move to break falls or bark to alert family members. They can remind you to take medication—especially helpful if you’re managing a psychiatric condition—and some can call 911 using a special canine safety phone.
Increasingly, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have found service animals helpful in controlling upsetting symptoms and reintegrating. Dogs can go into a room first and turn on lights, wake a person up from nightmares, or create barriers or distractions from triggers.
Reif recalls a veteran whose dog would tap him on the leg in business meetings when the man showed signs of panicking. “Then he could say, ‘Excuse me, I need to take the dog out to relieve itself,’” she says. “But really, that was the dog knowing that he needs to get away from people.” Once removed from the situation, the canine could perform other useful tasks for its human, such as nudging him to take medications or laying on him to physically ground him.
Working animals often wear vests or other identifying items, though this isn’t legally required. Nor does the law mandate what breed or type the dog is—while most are labradors, golden retrievers, or mixes that include these breeds, even small dogs can perform certain tasks like detecting low blood glucose, Reif says.
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Who qualifies for a service dog?
In short, anyone with a disability who could use a helping hand (or paw) qualifies for a service dog. There isn’t a single set of criteria, nor is there a national database or registration for working animals, though Reif says that’s a common misconception. Each organization that trains and provides service dogs has its own set of standards and processes.
That said, there are a number of factors someone should consider when deciding whether to get a service dog. After you’ve identified specific tasks a dog could do that would make daily life easier, think about how an animal will fit into your lifestyle, not just now but for the next 10 to 15 years. After all, you’re committing to this dog for a lifetime—its or yours, Reif says.
Ask yourself: Do you have room for a dog, and the time and energy to feed and exercise it? If you’re young and single now, will you still want a dog with you every moment if you start a relationship? How do your existing family members or housemates feel about it? And are you willing to put in work in the form of training and forming a relationship with the dog?
“You aren’t bringing in a bandaid or a robot that’s going to do anything on its own,” Henry says. “With all the benefits come a great deal of extra work, extra routines, extra everything to take care of this living being.”
Think about how your disability may shift, too: Reif recalls one man she worked with who had a hearing dog; he was deaf due to a mitochondrial disease that also affected his muscles. As his disease progressed, the man required more time in bed. The dog, robbed of its purpose, developed behavioral problems; eventually, it had to return to the agency that provided it.
Ibach worried her active lifestyle—traveling, full-time work, plus dinners out and concerts—might pose a challenge. But actually, the agency she worked with told her that was a plus. “These dogs are meant to work; they get bored at home,” she says. Ibach recommends thinking through how it will feel to have a service dog with you in public. You’ll quickly become a source of fascination and attention. That has its perks—for one thing, dogs can break the ice if you have trouble connecting socially, Lucas says. And for Ibach, it’s actually taken some of the pressure off, since the random questions from strangers are now about Bailey and not her own medical history.
If you have an invisible disability, however, and aren’t interested in that level of interaction—or in firmly telling people they can’t pet your dog, or advocating for your right to have the animal with you—then you might want to consider other options, Reif says.
What are your rights if you have a service dog?
Under the ADA, you can take service dogs to any public space. Legally, there are only two questions business owners or others can ask you: if the dog is a service dog and, if so, what service it performs. They can’t ask you what your disability is or demand proof in the form of paperwork or a demonstration, Diefenthaler says.
But practically speaking, people are going to say all kinds of things, Reif says—from asking whether they can pet the dog to challenging its legitimacy to demanding you hand it over while you go through airport security.
Ibach remembers feeling a bit timid about all this at first. Now, she’s kind but straightforward about boundaries with everyone from curious children and TSA agents. “The dog needs to be next to me at all times,” she says. “He’s super friendly, but it’s really important for him to be listening to me. If somebody else is petting him, it goes in one ear and out the other.”
How do you actually apply for and get a service dog?
First, find an organization that’s legitimate. The ADI website lists 80 North American agencies that have met the organization’s strict standards for training protocols. You can also ask for referrals or check with the Better Business Bureau, Reif says.
Many dog providers focus on one specific type of disability or set of tasks—for instance, training dogs for the visually impaired, diabetic alert dogs, or dogs that assist veterans with PTSD. Others, like paws4people, are broader in scope.
Each has its own application process, requirements, and level of support over the dog’s lifespan. But in general, it’s more like adopting a child than getting a dog from a shelter, Henry says. For instance, with paws4people, you begin with an online form that looks simple. “You could finish in two minutes or you could take two hours to do it, and that level of interest and investment up front is something we're going to take into account,” she says.
From there, you can expect a much longer application, in-person or video interviews, house visits, notes from and conversations with your health care providers and family—overall, a thorough evaluation of your disability, your home situation, and your life.
“A really good quality agency will actually interview you to the point that you feel uncomfortable sharing details with them, because they want to understand absolutely the minutiae of your lifestyle,” Reif says. “Then they’re going to tell you, 'OK, this is the one dog we have that’s your match.'”
Which highlights another common misconception—you don’t just go pick the cutest pup. Dogs, like people, have different skills and personalities. Trainers who have worked with the animals for years understand exactly what that dog’s good at and the environment it will thrive in. For that reason, along with high demand, there’s often a long wait for dogs (in that way, Ibach’s story isn’t typical—she applied for a dog in February and took Bailey home in June).
Then, there’s extensive training. Many organizations, especially those with national service areas, require handlers to come stay for a training camp. Others, like paws4people and MidAmerica Service Dogs, conduct shorter training sessions more frequently. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but how the experience fits into your life is another thing you’ll want to keep in mind as you’re evaluating an agency.
Also take a look at the long-term support you’ll receive. Reputable organizations will check in with you periodically to make sure you’re doing well. Some require scheduled re-training; paws4people actually maintains ownership of the dogs, placing them on a custody contract, Henry says. They also provide perks like insurance and help in requesting accommodations from your employer.
As an alternative, you can buy a puppy from a breeder and hire your own trainer. But not only does it usually cost more, it’s also a bit of a gamble. Even professional service dog organizations are only able to successfully train about half their dogs, Diefenthaler says. If the pup you pick doesn’t end up having the right temperament, you could be out of luck.
How much do service dogs cost?
Service dogs don’t come cheap, and insurance usually doesn’t cover the cost. Many organizations subsidize their operations with donations or grants, making the cost reasonable or even free for applicants. Some have creative solutions—Paws with a Cause, for instance, promotes a pay-it-forward culture, where dogs are provided for no charge but those who receive them are encouraged to fundraise to offset costs for the next prospective client.
Your alternatives depend on the task the dog is doing for you. Often, technology can fill a similar role. For instance, the man with the mitochondrial disease who returned his dog switched to lights and a vibrating bed to alert him to important sounds, Reif says.
Visually impaired people can use long canes (and in fact, to obtain a dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, must already be doing so). Newer options include glasses like eSight that enhance vision by activating photoreceptors in the brain, or services like Aira, in which sighted guides oversee your activities from their desktops.
“That person who’s watching for them essentially can help pick the best tomato at the grocery store and chop it once they get home,” Reif says. “That’s something a dog can’t do. Plus, insurance may cover a lot of those technologies.”
That said, there’s something “magic” about the way humans and animals work together, Henry says. Ibach adds that, for all the added responsibility, having Bailey has come with an added perk: a new community. Even though she’s long past the required six-month mark for training, she still goes to about two classes a month to connect. “We’ve built a community,” she says. “The participants”—canine and human—“have become friends.”
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