When it comes to Service Dog tasks, there is a lot of confusion over what constitutes a real, specifically trained task and which are only perceived tasks, fueled by emotion and wishful thinking. From Service Dog handlers to trainers to medical doctors to veterinarians alike, there is historically a lot of confusion surrounding this topic.
Logically, you would assume real and not real “trained” Service Dog tasks would be easy to differentiate — but the truth is, they’re not. Both members of the medical community (doctors, therapists, psychologists/psychiatrists etc.) as well as dog trainers/handlers with little Service Dog experience or knowledge have been known to be led by emotion into thinking a particular natural behavior is a task. MD’s and PhD’s within the medical field with no dog training experience have also been known to “certify a Service Dog” that is supposedly “trained” to perform work or tasks that directly mitigate a legitimate disability. Unfortunately, many of the “trained tasks” these dogs allegedly perform for their disabled handler, while possibly beneficial, aren’t actually trainable, and therefore don’t legally count as task work or contribute towards Service Dog status. Some of the most frequently encountered “tasks,” especially many of those popular within the Psychiatric Service Dog owner-trainer community, are not considered true Service Dog tasks by animal behaviorists, professional working dog trainers, professional Service Dog organizations and well-known Service Dog training professionals across the world.
Natural Behaviors Aren’t Service Dog Tasks
Susan Lily Grace RN, CDT, founder of the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs and nationally recognized Service Dog trainer and consultant, provides an excellent inquiry into the realm of trained vs untrained tasks. “Dogs offer all sorts of natural behaviors. Things like companionship, emotional support and any behavior offered by the dog that isn’t directly trained and linked to a cue is considered a natural behavior,” Grace explains.
As much as some people wish it was possible, a dog cannot train itself to be a Service Dog.
As an example, it’s natural for most animals to offer a soothing presence during a panic attack — some may even start a game of fetch or tug as a distraction. Many dogs will run to the door and bark if someone rings the doorbell or knocks, but that should not be confused with a legitimately trained hearing alert task. Many dogs may even jump in the lap of the handler if they hear a loud noise or something startled them enough to seek comfort from the handler. Some individuals confuse these natural behaviors with legitimately trained behaviors. As much as we wish it was possible, a dog cannot legitimately train itself to be a Service Dog.
To be perfectly clear, there are countless reports of dogs doing some amazing things on their own — even providing alerts that have saved lives. But unless you can rely on your dog to do that, it’s not considered a trained task.
Being disabled isn’t enough, many disabled people have pets. It’s the level of training and specific tasks or work a dog is trained to perform for the handler that directly mitigate their disability that makes a dog a Service Dog.
Although these natural behaviors may coincidentally be beneficial to the handler if and when they happen, they are not considered true tasks unless they are trained and proofed. Even some “alert” based tasks — like alerting to impending mood swings or anxiety attacks or triggers — should not be considered tasks IF they are not consistent and IF they are not directly linked to a verified cue and trained from a verified dog training method. True Service Dog tasks should easily be verified on a specific cue. In other words, if something can’t be demonstrated with reliability or on demand, the things some people may think of as “alerts” are really just random behaviors being interpreted as tasks. If any dog performs a behavior or “task” in question naturally, without any legitimate, verified, recognizable training that is proofed, then it’s not a trained task, period. Even if it’s helpful or beneficial or if there’s value to the disabled handler. If the behavior in question isn’t the result of specific training originating from the desire to produce a reliable, able-to-be-documented, consistently performed set of actions linked to a verbal, signaled or environmental or situational prompt, then it’s not valid Service Dog task work.
In other words, if something can’t be demonstrated with reliability or on demand, the things some people may think of as “alerts” or “tasks” are really just random behaviors being interpreted as tasks.
What is a Service Dog Task and what disqualifies a dog as a Service Dog?
Fact: The Department of Justice defines Service Animals under the ADA as “…dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
“Dogs that are not trained to perform tasks that mitigate the effects of a disability, including dogs that are used purely for emotional support, are not service animals.” — FACT SHEET Highlights of the Final Rule to Amend the Department of Justice’s Regulation Implementing Title II of the ADA
To be considered a task, a dog must execute a command (or behavior) promptly and on cue. Tasks are things that a dog is trained to do reliably — exactly like sitting or going into a down stay on command. Furthermore, the training must be verified by a qualitative and quantitative method (also known as proofing). Finally, and most importantly, the trained behavior in question must directly mitigate one or more aspects of the handler’s specific disability. The behavior of the dog must happen as a response to a specific command or be automatically cued by an external — but specific — factor such as scent (such as a verified sample of excretions from body during a high or low blood glucose level also known as hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia), emotion (such as a verified emotion of fear during a night terror), sound, motion, etc.
Service Dog tasks should be reliable, quantifiable and able to be performed via a specific, verifiable trained cue.
If any of these things are missing, it cannot be a verifiable trained task; therefore the dog is not actually “trained” to perform task work as is required by federal law for Service Dog status.
The Impact of Service Dog Tasks Affects Many
With the differences between trained task work and naturally occurring behaviors established, what does all of this mean and who does it affect?
First and Foremost, it Affects The Reputation of Service Dog Handlers
Fact: To be a Service Dog in the United States, a dog must possess trained, specific task work that directly mitigates their handler’s disability. Fact: Many so-called Service Dogs do not possess true trained task work because it’s un-trainable, unreliable or just coincidental natural canine behavior. Examine your Service Dog’s task list and fill in holes in your training, cue reliability and on-demand behavior performance. If you can’t concretely define precise verified cause and effect behavior chains for every piece of your task list then you have more work to do. Think of it as a verified cause and effect relationship: when this is cued, my Service Dog does THIS. Remember, it must be consistent and reliable in almost every situation. If it isn’t, but it is in fact on a verified cue that dogs have scientifically been proven to understand, keep working until it is.
Secondly, it Affects the Reputation of Dog Trainers
Fact: Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or Service Dog trainer, but that doesn’t mean they are a good trainer. Many trainers have simply grown up around dogs, trained their family pets or read books until they have an near-encyclopedic knowledge of dogs — but don’t possess the concrete knowledge, skill, patience or teaching ability necessary to train dogs. Some trainers or organizations will “certify” or “graduate” dogs without knowledge about what it takes to be a true Service Dog.
When searching for a Service Dog trainer or training organization, do your research. It truly does not matter how big or how small the organization or trainer is. You should not make the mistake of basing your judgment on the marketing and advertising campaigns an organization or trainer may have. You should base your judgment on the actual product they produce, dogs that you see with your own eyes, teams performing at the level of competency you would expect from a professionally trained Service Dog and handler. It’s up to you to comparison shop; don’t just look at one trainer or organization. And more importantly, meet with the dogs they’ve trained. When you peel back the flashing lights of their marketing campaigns, the acronyms under their name and the smoke and mirrors they may use to try and impress you, all you are left with is the actual product they produce. That is all that truly should matter to you because at the end of the day, the dog you receive from them is what you will be dealing with for the next 7+ years.
Next, it Affects the Medical and Treatment Team Community
Fact: Many Service Dog handlers, especially owner-trainers, begin their Service Dog journey with their doctor, therapist or other treatment team member. Fact: Most medical professionals are not dog trainers. Fact: Being disabled isn’t enough to warrant a service dog if in fact there is no way to legitimately train the dog to directly mitigate the specific disability as required by law. Many disabled people have pets. It’s the specific tasks or work your dog performs that mitigates that disability which make a dog a Service Dog. Medical doctors, psychiatrists and licensed psychologists may be able to validate a disability but they can’t validate a dog’s training with those credentials alone. Medical doctors, psychiatrists and licensed psychologists often write letters of recommendation based on the heartfelt words from their patient, which unfortunately, still does not verify the dog is actually trained or the training in question can be verified on a qualitative and quantitative basis. Well-meaning medical professionals who provide a letter of recommendation for a Service Dog that isn’t actually trained to perform reliable disability-mitigating tasks (and therefore isn’t a really a Service Dog) can do the Service Dog community more harm than good. Just because you “feel your dog helps you” or a doctor provides a letter saying your dog is a Service Dog doesn’t necessary mean it is so.
Professional Service Dog trainers understand how dogs learn and how legitimate trained tasks to mitigate a disability are trained into a dog. They understand the process required to transform a behavior from “unlearned” to “able to be performed on-cue” and in any environment — even under intense distraction. Professional trainers are thoroughly familiar with producing the desired trained behavior a dog should achieve, consistently and reliably.
When people who claim their dog as a Service Dog ask me for advice, I will ask them about their tasks. Sometimes I hear about some pretty amazing things their dogs do for them. As a professional trainer, I ask, “how did you train your dog to do that?” Often, people respond with a deer-in-the-headlights look or say, “I really don’t know, he just does it” or “she learned how to do it on her own!”
The bottom line is: If you claim to have a trained dog but you truly do not know how the dog was trained, and you cannot communicate a verified dog training method that is proven — combined with a verified cue the dog was trained from — then it is safe to say that your “Service Dog” is not “trained to directly mitigate a disability” as required by law. Therefore, since your dog probably provides legitimate emotional support, but not a realistic trained task or tasks, you do not have a Service Dog. Rather, you have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). which is something for which a medical doctor, psychiatrist or licensed psychologist can actually provide legitimate documentation. However, an Emotional Support Animal is not a Service Dog and is not allowed in public the same way a Service Dog is. An Emotional Support Animal is only given special provisions for people who require them while flying commercial airlines and/or require them at their home or residence.
Finally, it Affects the Service Dog Community as Whole
How untrained or under-trained dogs affect the Service Dog community is far more complex than most people think. For example, dogs which aren’t able to perform reliable, trained, tasks or work are sometimes also unable to demonstrate other behaviors Service Dogs should have, especially for working in public — even if that individual is legitimately disabled and has a letter from their physician or under-qualified dog trainer. When
If a dog isn’t able to behave well in public, it affects the perception of Service Dogs everywhere.
In conclusion, federal law is very clear on the fact that in order for an animal to be considered a Service Dog it must be trained to perform tasks which directly mitigate the handler’s disability. It is important to have a list of specific and trainable tasks you would like your dog to perform that you are unable to — or have difficulty completing — due to your disability. Remember, while people cannot ask about your disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task, they are allowed to ask what work or task has your dog been trained to perform — so you should be prepared to answer.
Currently, only a federal judge can legally make the final call on whether or not a dog is in fact a Service Dog — as well as verify if a disability is legitimately diagnosed and ask someone to prove how their dog has been trained to mitigate their disability. So, if you haven’t already, write out your list of trained tasks, work to train your dog on a recognizable cue to perform those tasks, proof it, document it, and never stop practicing. Because that “deer in the headlights look” isn’t going to earn you a positive verdict after a federal judge asks you to explain what tasks your Service Dog is trained to perform and how you trained your dog to directly mitigate your disability. With knowledge and education, together we can create a better world for everyone to live in with our much-needed Service Dogs.