by Kylene Boka
So you’ve made the decision that a service dog would be a great addition to your current treatment plan to help manage your disability. Congratulations! Having a service dog can be an incredible game changer for many people with all sorts of disabilities. Between making the decision that a service dog would be a good option for you and actually having a trained dog, there are few more important choices to be made.
Tasks Must Be Trained
If you’ve determined that you have a disability, then the next step is choosing what your service dog will be trained to do. There are a few things to remember when you are figuring out what tasks you need and want. First, to be legally considered a service dog, the ADA states that the dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”. That means that any natural behaviors that your dog may do that help in some way are not considered actual work or tasks until they are trained and done on command or in response to a specific cue.
A Note on Natural Alerts
There are certain alerts that are not yet trainable, such as seizure alert. These dogs have a natural ability to detect oncoming seizures. However, just their ability to alert does not make them a service dog. The natural alert needs to be shaped into a trained task. It could be teaching the dog to paw as the alert behavior or having the dog retrieve emergency medication as soon as it detects the oncoming seizure or guiding you to a safe position or location prior to the onset of symptoms. Once the natural detection ability is shaped into a specific, consistent behavior, it can be considered an actual task.
List Your Limitations
There are far more tasks that have to actually be trained than there are natural alerts that simply need to be shaped. That is where the next important thing to consider comes into play. Deciding what tasks you would like your service dog to perform can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially as a new handler, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The ADA further qualifies the definition of a service dog by stating that “the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to a person’s disability”. The BEST way to address this is to make a list of all the things you cannot do because of your disability.
For example, if you have limited mobility, you might list things like getting the phone if it starts ringing in another room or picking up items off the floor or retrieving medications or objects from around the house. If you have diabetes, you might list detecting blood sugar changes or retrieving juice or emergency sugar in response to fast dropping low blood sugar. If you have severe allergies, you might list knowing whether your food has been contaminated, if surfaces you have to touch have trace amounts of your allergen on them, or retrieving emergency medication and epipens during a reaction. All these are specific examples of what someone may be unable to do because of a disability and highlights tasks a service dog can be trained to perform to address each limitation.
Consult With Your Team
Along with coming up with your own list, you should also consult with your doctor and an experienced service dog trainer or program to discuss your limitations and possible tasks to train. Your doctor may be able to offer some suggestions of how to balance the tasks a dog can perform with pharmaceutical interventions and whether symptom progression is something to consider as tasks are being trained. An experienced trainer or program will not only have the expertise to help with the hands on training, but also likely has an idea of what tasks are most beneficial for certain limitations. This important step of choosing tasks should be a collaborative effort to get the most benefit out of what a service dog can offer.
Avoid Fishing for Tasks
Sometimes newer handlers can get caught up in what can be called “task fishing”. This is where instead of listing your own limitations and how a service dog could specifically mitigate those disabilities, you ask other handlers what tasks their dogs perform and come up with a task list based on other people’s input. Now, there is nothing wrong with seeking out the advice of more experienced handlers. However, this should be done at the end of the process, not at the beginning. Task fishing often means the essential step of determining your own limitations has been skipped.
A Dog Isn’t Always the Best Option
This step is incredibly important because some people are absolutely disabled, but those limitations are not things a dog can address. If you are disabled by an inability to speak or otherwise communicate, a dog cannot communicate your thoughts for you. In this case, a service dog might not be a good treatment option. If you have a child with autism who has a tendency to bolt or is unable to control violent outbursts during a meltdown, the potential risk of the dog or child becoming injured during a violent outburst or by getting tangled in a leash means a service dog is not likely to be an ideal option.
If after making a list of what you are unable to do because of your disability, speaking with your doctor, and talking with an experienced trainer, you realize that a dog may not actually be able to help, it can save you thousands of dollars investing in a dog that ultimately is trained for many different skills but not actually able to perform any tasks that mitigate your disability. Without the step of listing your limitations, task fishing means that despite how well trained a dog may be, it would not technically be considered a service dog under the ADA as it does not address your specific disability.
That said, many handlers do teach their dogs additional skills that may not necessarily be considered legal tasks but are still useful. If you are hard of hearing and need a dog to alert to various sounds and noises, you can absolutely train your dog to bring you items from around the house, but those would not be considered tasks because they do not address your specific disability. If you have an allergy detection dog, you can train your dog to perform deep pressure therapy, but it would not be considered a task because it is not directly related to your severe allergies.
Ultimately it comes down to the fact that the ADA grants public access to handlers because it recognizes the extent to which dogs are able to significantly improve the lives of many people with a wide variety of disabilities. The reason these dogs are so life changing is because they are specifically trained to perform tasks that mitigate specific disabilities. Choosing tasks is one of the most important decisions you can make as a service dog handler because it is only in recognizing the extent of your own limitations that you can truly realize the scope of what your dog can do to change your life.