Fact or Fiction

by KCJ Szwedzinski

As Executive Director of Project Chance, I was asked to write an article that would provide insight into the definition of a service dog. Having a psychiatric service dog of my own named Maka, I am sensitive to the subject of public access with my dog. I hope that by simplifying the definition of a service dog and educating the public on the correct etiquette, our families receiving service dogs will feel confident knowing their rights and the laws that pertain to their dog and child. Within the last 10 years dogs have been used to aid individuals with disabilities more than ever before. Most people are familiar with seeing eye dogs and dogs to help individuals in wheelchairs. These are generally disabilities that can be seen with the naked eye and, as such, service dogs aiding these individuals are rarely questioned or given a hard time. Service dogs can also be trained for invisible disabilities, such as but not limited to: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Autism, Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Cerebral Palsy.

Let us start with a few definitions. A service animal as defined by Title II and Title III of thetruth1 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. I think it is important to further define some of the words within this definition to gain greater clarity. The words “work” and “task” can be broken down and must meet these three requirements: 1) be trained and not a natural behavior of the dog, 2) must mitigate the person's disability, 3) must be needed by that specific handler. ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability (adata.org).

Project Chance, as an organization that deals with training dogs for Autism,is presented with the unique challenge of having each dog meet specific needs. There is a saying that goes, “if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” This means that autism presents itself differently from person to person and each family’s goals with their service dog will be unique. Our dogs can be any of the following and possibly a combination of: psychiatric service dog, SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog), seizure response dog, and mobility or balance assistance dogs.

Our dogs will often dually fill the role of an ESA, or an Emotional Support Animal as well. The distinction between a service dog and Emotional Support animal is that the service dog will perform tasks or do work specifically trained for that individual’s disability. An Emotional Support Animal will provide emotional support, confidence and love but does not need to be specially trained. A dog (or other animal) that is solely an Emotional Support Animal does not have the same public access rights as a service dog.

Our dogs will provide therapeutic value to the family members and again it is important to distinguish the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog. A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations, such as disaster areas. A therapy dog does not have the same public access rights as a service dog. Project Chance dogs are service dogs for children with autism. What is important is to remember about the ADA is that our service dogs “mitigate children with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.”  

It is important to know what businesses are allowed to ask you and your family. A distinct component to autism service dogs is the dynamic between dog and handler. Unlike most service dog teams where there is one handler paired with the dog, autism service dogs for children often have an adult navigating the team. This can be challenging for business owners to figure out. Being knowledgeable about what they can ask will protect your privacy and allow for a positive, educational exchange. When a person with a service animal enters a public facility or place of public accommodation, the person cannot be asked about the nature or extent of his disability. Only two questions may be asked:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

truth2It is equally important to note that a public accommodation or facility is not allowed to ask for documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal (adata.org). Service dogs do not need to wear any distinguishing garments, such as a vest, to be allowed into a public place. It is helpful though to have the dog wear a vest because it allows people to recognize your dog as a service dog without asking you about them. This is a choice each person gets to make when going out in public with their dog. For children with autism, a vest on their dog will often spark spontaneous social interaction with the public which can be a desired goal for a family working on building social skills into their child’s life. Service dogs do amazing things for people and it is only right that people do amazing things for their service dogs. One of the best things you can do is to be a knowledgeable advocate for you, your family, and your child.


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