They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs”

Brooke at ruled by paws is hosting Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #8 on the theme of “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum.”

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Marching to Our Own Drum!

Lately I’ve begun to realize just how much my current approach to training my service dog (SD) diverges from ideas, approaches, and perceptions of SDs in the larger US culture. Specifically, my main focus is on training my assistance dog to perform behaviors that assist me, due to my disabilities. This would seem to be not only sensible, but the very definition of an assistance dog, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is. If you read the service animal section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will find this:

Service animals are defined 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.

Yet, more and more I am coming across individuals, organizations, and websites focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively, on training dogs in obedience and manners so that the dog can accompany its person in public. (Here is an organizational example of a focus that is primarily on public access. Here is an organizational example of a non-task training approach to SD work.)

It’s understandable that public access training (which includes a dog being obedient, well-mannered, and unobtrusive in public as well as being able to perform necessary assistance tasks in public) is receiving so much attention. Public access is a legal issue, so it’s natural that organizations and individuals are concerned about complying with the law. Further, there are more assistance dogs working and being trained than ever before, which means more SDs are showing up in public. Into the mix add that more people are partner-training than ever before (with a great range of experience and skill) and that many partners have hidden disabilities that make them more vulnerable to access challenges. Finally, and sadly, there are an increasing number of people who wish to commit fraud by trying to pass off their pet dogs as SDs — both people with disabilities who have not done the necessary training and people without disabilities who simply want the companionship of their dog away from home. The pressure on the SD handler to make sure their dog behaves with perfect comportment at all times is thus a very big deal in the assistance dog world.

Meanwhile, here I am, training my dog to help me around the house — open and shut doors, turn on and off lights, pick up things I drop, carry messages to my human assistants, etc. We are barely doing any public access training simply because I spend almost all my time in bed and very rarely leave the house, so training in public is very difficult, and having a working dog in public is much less important than one who helps me at home. Barnum has to be “on call” at home at any time I might need him. Fortunately, his personality and the way we have trained mean that he is eager to jump into action.

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Barnum opens the fridge for me.

I realize our situation is not that of most teams. In some cases public access is always crucial to the dog’s work. Guide dogs often work exclusively outside the home and are off duty at home. Their work involves assisting their human partners to get to and from work, school, restaurants, hotels, conferences, and subways. Thus, public work is essential for a guide dog.

For people with other types of assistance dogs, too, there is usually an expectation of public work — alerting or guiding or providing mobility assistance in stores, on the street, at work, etc. Most people with assistance dogs bring their SD with them everywhere for two reasons:

  1. The dog’s work is necessary or important for the disabled person in public, and
  2. The working bond between the partners is strengthened by ongoing work and training in a variety of settings and/or on a daily basis

Still, the proliferation of both SD fraud and poorly trained SDs have led some assistance dog organizations to require passing a public access test as proof that a dog is a service dog. For example, to be a partner member of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), I have to sign a form saying that my SD has or would be able to pass their public access test/definition. So, even though I have had two previous SDs and have been an IAADP member for a dozen years, now I’m no longer a partner member because Barnum and I don’t go out. I feel very sad about this.

Yet, Barnum is a working service dog around the house. You can see how much we’ve accomplished in this regard in just a month by comparing this recent post from July to this one from June.

I feel frustrated by this, and the irony does not escape me: the more disabled I am, and the more I need my service dog, the less I fit neatly into the category of a SD team. In fact, I can trace the changes in my disabilities in part by what my service dogs have done for me at a given time.

My first service dog, Jersey, did help me around the house, but the biggest difference she made for me was that she enabled me to occasionally go out by myself. I trained her to cart my oxygen tanks to and from the car, and to carry groceries from the van to the front door and then to the fridge. At doctor’s appointments or other occasional outings, her carrying my water and other things in a pack left my hands free to push my oxygen cart if I was walking. I went grocery shopping once every month or two with her and my mobility scooter, which was something I had previously not been able to do since I got sick. Before Jersey, I always needed someone to take me shopping.

[Note: I have some great photographs of Jersey working, but they haven’t been scanned into a computer yet. I hope to get the pics inserted by the time the Carnival goes up. Please come back in a week or two, and hopefully they’ll be here!]

Even the things she helped me out with around the house are different from the tasks I need canine assistance with now. For example, Jersey helped me fold and put away the laundry. But now I have human assistants do that. She also carted gardening supplies, which enabled me to garden. Now I’m much too sick to garden. Once, when I walked into my backyard to pick apples, I was too sick to walk back unaided, and she helped me get back home. Now there’s no question of me wandering out on foot into a field.

Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen canula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.

Gadget in a calm down-stay and paying attention to me while surrounded by little kids.

Gadget, my second SD, learned the same things Jersey did — bracing, carrying a pack, retrieving, loading and unloading groceries — but I also added some additional skills so that he could help out with more stuff at home.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house.

He learned how to alert me to the kitchen timer, to let the cat and himself in and out, to open and shut doors, to bring me the phone. When I got Lyme disease and became much more disabled than before, those skills became much more crucial than the ones for going shopping or putting away laundry. And then I taught him new things that were much more important — getting Betsy or my PCA when I couldn’t speak, turning lights on and off and bringing me water from the refrigerator to take my pills when I couldn’t get out of bed, etc.

Meanwhile, Barnum has learned to do things that Gadget didn’t. Barnum has a much more refined “go get person/deliver message” than Gadget did. He is helping me with undressing, which Gadget never learned. He alerts to my various alarms and pumps. And I still have plans for him to learn additional skills that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch about 3 inches by 3 inches velcroed to the back of his collar.

This is the pouch Barnum wears for transporting messages or small items to or from others in my home.

Some of you may remember that when Barnum was younger, I was concerned that he’d never make it as my service dog because he was such a distracted, hyper flake in public. The irony is that since he’s matured, on the occasions I have taken him into public to train, he’s done really well — especially considering his age and his bouncy nature. I could have passed Jersey off as a fully trained SD before she had finished her training because her manners were so perfect and calm in public. She could have been doing nothing to help me, and we wouldn’t have been challenged because we “looked like” a SD team.

I once read about a SD program which had a separate category for dogs who could assist their people in the home but not work in public (due to anxiety or distractibility); they called these dogs “companion dogs” and they were not considered service animals. That has always bothered me. A “companion animal” is a pet. Dogs, cats, birds are all referred to as “companion animals.” However, a dog that opens and shuts the fridge, turns lights on and off, helps with the laundry, and retrieves dropped items for her disabled handler is a service dog, not a pet. If that dog doesn’t do well in public, obviously the dog should be left home when the person goes out. But that doesn’t make the dog any less a service dog. Why not just call that type of dog an “in-home service dog”? It would be more accurate, and in my opinion, more respectful to both members of the team.

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Barnum turns off the lights.

Barnum is already, by legal definition, a service dog: he increases my independence and safety by performing assistance tasks, which is what assistance dogs are supposed to do. The fact that my level of function and my level of dependence on humans is more than most assistance dog partners (and more than my previous level) doesn’t change that. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say he’s a SD in the eyes of assistance dog organizations, because I don’t know if we’ll do enough training — if I, myself, will leave the house enough, let alone with him — for him to pass a public access test. I try not to let it get to me. In the scheme of things, what’s most important is that Barnum and I are happy and productive together. I do hope, though, to feel a greater sense of acceptance and respect from the assistance dog community one day.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum SD/SDiT

8 Responses to “They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs””

  1. 1 eileenanddogs July 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Sharon, what a frustrating situation for you. Again you have described something that I, as a pet dog trainer, was completely unaware of.

    I have heard two service dogs trainers describe public access work as their focus because it is so much harder than the tasks. That is, that performing the tasks, as well as being well mannered, is much harder in a public environment because of the generalization issues with dog training. Do you think that has a part in the general focus on public access in addition to the reasons you stated (and which I had never known about)? How weird that the ability to be well mannered in public is creeping into top position in the definition of a service dog though.

    It’s such a shame there isn’t a recognized classification for what Barnum does, although no one who knows you or reads this blog would ever doubt that he is an assistance dog extraordinaire! I love reading about the incredible methods you have designed and trained for him to help you.

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler July 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Hey Eileen.

    You said: “I have heard two service dogs trainers describe public access work as their focus because it is so much harder than the tasks. That is, that performing the tasks, as well as being well mannered, is much harder in a public environment because of the generalization issues with dog training.”

    Yes, that’s definitely part of it for many trainers. However, I think, like all generalizations, it’s not always true. For Jersey, being well mannered and obedient in public was never an issue. But for both Jersey and Gadget, doing skills like retrieving were more reliable at home than in public, for sure. That’s largely because I wasn’t yet schooled in the Sue Eh? training method and because, even though I was less sick then, I still had less time and energy to devote to public work because I was mostly homebound.

    But I have seen some trainers say that training the tasks is easy, because they’re just tricks, whereas training the dog to be totally focused and well mannered in public is a lot more work. (See: “”Task training,” again contrary to popular belief, is the easiest part of training a service dog.” here:

    I think it depends on the dog. Some task training with Barnum has been much harder than a lot of the obedience and manners stuff with him or esp with Jers or Gadg, whereas the task stuff with Gadget was easier. A lot depends on what task you’re training. Long, complicated behavior chains I’ve trained as service dog skills have taken a lot more work than teaching a reliable down-stay, I can tell you!

    The other issue is that there are some people who are not focused on task training. I see a lot of posts on social media to the tune of “my dog just naturally knew what I needed/is a natural service dog.” I find that problematic. Obviously there are dogs who notice or alert on their own in to their person’s particular medical or emotional state, but that still needs to be built into a reliable, readable behavior, but not everyone does that.

    There is a site that says that if the *person* responds to the dog’s natural behavior by doing something *themselves* that is beneficial to their own disability/functioning, that is a service dog performing work. I think that is not so much a potential slippery slope as already having slid down the slope. That is a therapy animal, not a service dog. People advocating this approach then advocate training the dog for obedience and manners in public to complete “service dog training.”

    It’s not like it has to be an either/or. One of the first instances I learned of an MCSer with an assistance dog was a guide dog user who had moderate MCS and no sense of smell. Her guide made the connection on his own to the fragrance triggers that caused his partner to stagger and began guiding her not only around physical barriers but away from environmental triggers. And a bouvier SD trainer I know trained a mobility assistance dog for a client and then the dog on her own immediately started alerting to her new partner’s migraines. But it took a few alerts before the person realized that the dog was alerting and figured out the interim and how to interpret the behavior of the dog. Again, this was a dog that was already trained as a SD. Some dogs start out as pets and then show a knack for alerting to seizures or blood sugar drops and get trained for specific alerts along with all the other SD/public access/obedience training. But I see that as a different ball of wax from training a well-behaved dog who happens to provide therapeutic support.

  3. 3 Eileen Anderson July 30, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Thanks for elaborating. I also find the natural service dog thing very problematic. And I hadn’t even heard of the twist you describe, where a dog could be thought of as a service dog if their natural behavior triggers a beneficial reaction in the human. Sigh. Yep, already slipped down the slope. And then there’s the breeder of diabetes alert dogs who are sent out as 6 week old puppies supposedly already ready to save somebody’s life….

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler July 30, 2012 at 12:36 am

    And then there’s the breeder of diabetes alert dogs who are sent out as 6 week old puppies supposedly already ready to save somebody’s life….


    There are SO many things WRONG with that sentence that I don’t know where to begin. That is a very bad situation for the puppies, for the humans (talking about setting both up to fail!), and for the assistance dog movement/community.

    And yeah, the link to a SD “task” as being behavioral therapy for the person is actually located in the blog post. (I can send it to you privately, if you want.) I mean, I believe that partner training can be beneficial as a form of behavioral therapy — I’ve written about how training a memory alert in my SDs has helped me remember things better — but that does not mean that their final behavior is intended as behavioral therapy for me.

  5. 5 Karyn and Thane July 30, 2012 at 10:30 am

    This whole natural service dog thing can be problematic for sure. I will say though in many respects, Met was a natural at alerting to needs around the home and sometimes when I was out. That said there’s a difference between the whole natural service dog mentality and what transpired with Met. Yes he was natural at recognizing certain things but I still needed to train the appropriate alert for us as a team to use that natural ability. I seriously thing much of the *natural* boils down to the bond but I don’t think its all about that. If it were, Thane and I would be another Met and I. They are as different as night and day though

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler July 30, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Karyn, you said, “Yes he was natural at recognizing certain things but I still needed to train the appropriate alert for us as a team to use that natural ability. ”

    Yes, that is exactly the difference I’m talking about. There are organizations saying that if a dog starts to whine, for example, when its person is anxious, that is “work” because the handler can then take steps to respond to their anxiety, instead of training the dog to do something that is more appropriate and professional in public than whining.

  7. 7 Cyndy Otty August 1, 2012 at 9:51 am

    While not central to your point I have to say the companion animal thing bugs me only to the extent that I don’t really understand where the line is that differentiates one from an “emotional support animal” from a pet you’re just really close with. I have my own opinions on the whole thing, but I won’t deny that they don’t exist. I just have a hard time with lumping such things in with service dogs if they aren’t really doing anything. I mean, I would be lying if I said that being a dog lover wasn’t a big part of why I work a guide dog. But I don’t really see how the two are mutually exclusive.

    More on the subject, though, I have to say the delineation between whether an assistance dog is really an assistance dog due to public access work is something I never gave any thought to before. Given the wide variety of work that assistance dogs — specifically those that fall under the “service dog” banner — do it seems an odd sticking point.

    And completely unrelated, I think I forgot to renew my IAADP membership. Oops.

  8. 8 brilliantmindbrokenbody September 4, 2012 at 12:03 am

    My school is one that calls the not-public-appropriate dogs ‘home companion dogs’.

    I think part of it is who the school places those dogs with, and what kind of training and standards they are expected to have for their dog. I’m expected to go to ‘graduate support classes’ – 6 in my first year (or an appropriate privately booked thing), and 1 a year or so after that. I’m expected to maintain his training and discipline, and hopefully to add new, specialized skills. I went through a MUCH more rigorous training to be partnered. My program is willing to place full-service dogs all over the country, but they’ll only place home companion dogs. I have to write up a LONG evaluation twice a year, and be re-examined with him every 2 years (which involves a series of tests that are relatively simple if your partnership is in good shape, and quite hard if it’s not). Altogether, my responsibilities are much larger, and my dog is more highly trained and expected to do more – not just outside of the house, but in the house as well.

    The other thing is, as I said, who they place home companions with. Most home companion dogs seem to be placed with individuals who have pretty severe mental as well as physical handicaps. Many of the partners are also quite young children. It seems like they generally choose partners who, for one reason or another, probably should not have a working dog without supervision. From what I’ve seen and heard at two graduations, most have either severe cerebral palsy or are autistic.

    This is not to say that my school doesn’t place full-service dogs with people who have mental handicaps – we had someone in my class who had Down’s (and unfortunately had to do a lot of work and graduate in the next session, because he was having trouble adjusting to his successor dog), and someone whose seizures caused fairly severe memory issues, to the point where she had trouble learning and remembering commands.

    I don’t know how I feel about the terms my service dog school uses. From what I’ve seen, it seems like the home companion dogs from my school are mostly superbly well-mannered and well-trained dogs who are there for their humans, and can also do some service dog skills as needed. They’re kind of an odd place between ‘true’ service dogs and pets.


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