My Turn: Service dogs help with many invisible disabilities

Posted: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

T he Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as any animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself.

"Guide dogs" are one type of service animal, used by individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar. But there are service animals that assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds, pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments and assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance. A service dog does not have to be large to be able to assist a person with a disability.

If the public ever has reason to believe that a pet is being masqueraded as a service dog, simply ask the handler what tasks the dog is trained (or is in training) to do for the individual. The individual who is using the dog cannot be legally asked what their disability is, although answering what tasks the dog performs will many times divulge the nature of their disability.

It is true that there are people who take advantage of a system that currently does not require any special certification. My 17-year-old daughter and I constantly run into people wanting to know where to get the vest and patches. While it is unfortunately true that they can easily be bought on the Internet, we tell people that the first step is to talk to their doctor and ask for a letter stating that they have a documented disability; such a letter cannot be legally asked to be seen, but will go a long way in protecting the disabled if they are ever legally challenged. We divulge that there is a Web site that will assist individuals in self training and about the video test that the Web site operators will use to discern if the dog in question and their handler meet the definition of a service dog team.

One of the disability advocates at Southeast Alaska Independent Living has mentioned to us that the day will probably come in the near future when service dog teams will actually have to be certified due to the constant misuse of such dogs.

While SAIL has said there is no need to divulge so much information, my daughter and I would like the public to know that Buddy, who is a cockapoo and wears a blue pack, does limited guide tasks for her. Tasha is legally blind in her left eye and is basically blind when anything prevents her from seeing out of her right eye; by limited I mean that Buddy has been trained to guide her short distances in order to get assistance. He also carries emergency items for Tasha including an asthma inhaler and epi-pen; Tasha has allergies severe enough that she has been taken to the emergency room with breathing difficulties. In addition, we are in the process of getting her a full-size service dog because since she has vision in only one eye, Tasha has no depth perception, which presents problems in and of itself. However, the waiting lists are lengthy and can take months or even years before being matched with a trained dog. Buddy quite often will ride in a basket when we are in a busy shopping environment because since people do not expect small service animals, they do not notice him. He has gotten stepped on more than once.

We have also run into a Pomeranian that carries heart medication and calls out for assistance and know of a Chihuahua that alerts its handler to an approaching seizure. None of the three are very large, but they all have hearts of gold and all are indispensable to their owner-handlers.

• Juneau resident Tracy Hansen is mother of a daughter who has invisible disabilities.•

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