Monday, January 4, 2010

The FAQs About Service Animals

Many of my friends have asked if I ever use a Service Animal, or plan to, because I have so many trained pets. Service Animals, according to the American Disabilities Act, are NOT pets. They are trained to serve as assistants to their owners, and do NOT have to be dogs. There are many service cats, service dogs, service birds, service monkeys- and yes, even service rats. As a rat trainer, I've been asked if I could prep an animal for service to help those who have epilepsy, and even to help work as therapy animals. Service Animals and Therapy Animals are not the same thing.

One rat I had trained would climb into her owner's mouth and pull out any food items if the child was choking or was having a seizure. The rat was signaled by the shaking of a hand to jump up onto the girl's shoulder, and to wiggle her way into the mouth, avoiding being chomped if the seizure included jaw spasms. The "trick" wasn't hard to learn for the rat, and the girl had her for the full three years after I trained the critter. By that time, her Service Monkey had finished his training, and is still in her care, some four years later. Now a young lady about to enter college, she and her monkey are expected to live a long happy life together.

Service Animals are allowed into any place of business, and cannot be removed unless there is a threat of regular business operation by the animal. For instance, a restaurant may refuse a Service Rat because having a rodent in the location would make it difficult for other patrons to enjoy their meals. A Service Dog that barks at the actors during a theatrical production of Hamlet may be the reason an owner is requested to leave. The owner is responsible for the actions of the employed animal, and as such should expect that some business people may object without cause because there is a misunderstanding of the purpose.

There is no federal required documentation of a Service Animal, although several organizations exist that offer identification papers for a fee. If your animal is labeled as a Service animal, by either a patch, or embroidered emblem on a vest, bandanna, or leash, he is considered a documented animal. Some businesses are under the mistaken belief that you must show proof of your disability, and some sort of document explaining the reason you possess a Service Animal. People have asked doctors to give a prescription, just to alleviate any confusion. In some states, you can register your animal as a worker. Some airlines may require similar documents, but according to the TSA, no Service Animal may be separated from the owner under any circumstances, although it may be required that you show the purpose or training of the animal.

Therapy Animals do not have the same freedom of travel. A Therapy Animal may serve as a visitor to hospitals, as an aide to people with psychological disorders, or even work in prisons. But, as they do not serve a specific purpose for a specific person's disability, they are not considered to be Service Animals. Any animal can be a Therapy Animal, and doesn't require special training. Many organizations offer certification, for a fee, and some hospitals or non-profit organizations expect the animal to pass a degree of training, but a Therapy Animal can be considered a pet, and is not required to perform specific tasks.

In the era of the Dot Com, it wasn't unusual to see companies allowing pets into the workplace. It is believed that the work staff is more relaxed around pets, and more productive, working longer hours, if the pets are allowed time with the owners during regular work days. There are still major organizations that have doggy daycare as part of their benefits package, offer pet days, or even allow dogs, cats, and other pets in the workplace. This has become so common of a practice that even the SPCA offers tips to employees who do so!

Should you pay for a service that offers "ADA identification" for your service animal? Your state may require a registration through a recognized county office, or through a medical professional. It doesn't mean there is a fee involved. Some states recommend that your service animal be trained through a professional, recognized training service. But, as there is no federal mandate for documentation, there is no federal standard for training. The basic rules are the animal must be under control of the owner at all time, must adhere to specific tasks relating to a disability, and may not disrupt a place of business. But, having documentation for a Service Animal other than a clearly placed label is up to the owner.

Some people have discovered that having a simple ID card has allowed them easier access into businesses, and others have never found a reason to state or show that their animal serves a purpose except through recognizable vests, labels, or patches. For therapy animals, it is best to adhere to the rules of the organization requesting assistance. For instance, a senior center may request the animal be on a leash, or a school that uses therapy pets to help kids learn to read may require that the animal be calm during sounds of bells, laughter, or child play. It is wise to verify with your county or state websites to ensure you are following the recommended guidelines.

Today's questions- Do you have a Therapy or Service Animal? Have you found it easier to carry documentation? Do you feel a Service Animal must have professional training? How do you feel about animals in a place of business?