Service Dogs Undergo Rigorous Training Despite Lax Laws
Eli grabbed the tennis ball at the end of a blue and white rope and opened the refrigerator door quickly upon command. Attentively, the 5 1/2-year-old Golden Retriever stood by for trainer Linda Marler in the kitchen of the new Baylor Service Dog Academy in downtown Dallas. Moments earlier, Eli had demonstrated how well he could retrieve a bottle of water, cell phone, and shoes and work a light switch.
A therapy dog by trade, Eli is one of two preferred breeds for service animal work. By nature, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are easy to train and want to please their masters. They are two of the most approachable breeds of large dogs that help the disabled perform everyday tasks.
Marler, a long-time therapy dog trainer who is heading Baylor Health Care System’s first service dog academy, has three Golden Retriever puppies enrolled. When the dogs are 18 months old, they will begin four to six months of 8-hour-a-day rigorous training that includes learning to open doors, retrieving items, getting help, handing over money, pulling a wheel chair and other tasks.
Once the course is over, each dog will receive a cape identifying it as a service animal, more of a badge of honor than an official designation. In the end, cost to train the animal can climb as high as $50,000.
Service Animal Registration Not Required
Laws don’t require that service animals be registered, and there is no definitive organization that accredits dogs. Assistance Dogs International, a member organization devoted to service dog training around the world, is a well-known organization that Marler uses as a resource for training and standards.
“But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there that say they’re training service dogs that don’t make the service dogs fit all the (criteria),” said Marler. “You can go on the Internet and purchase a vest and a patch and say your dog is a service dog and not have any problems at all.”
Service Dog Candidates Carefully Chosen
Service animal authenticity has long been a point of contention for multifamily property managers when working with applicants that may or may not appear to have a visible disability at apartments where pets aren’t allowed or restricted breed lists are in play. By law, property owners must accommodate animals that assist the disabled or provide emotional support.
Baylor Service Dog Academy carefully chooses candidates for its classes. The breeding history and temperament of the animal are thoroughly investigated, Marler says, and dogs that don’t meet standards that include positive health profiles aren’t admitted, no matter the breed type.
While Golden Retrievers and Labradors are preferred, that doesn’t mean Marler will automatically accept those breeds.
“It’s not the breed of the dog, it’s the temperament of the individual dog,” Marler says. “The temperament could be the result of the breeding, not the individual breed. You can get just as many mean Golden Retrievers.”
Over the years, she has successfully worked with German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans and pit bulls – dogs which are perceived to be aggressive – each proving to be good therapy dogs. She currently has dogs from each breed working in therapy.
Controversial Breeds not Admitted for Service Training
But as a service animal, Marler draws the line with pit bulls, which have come into question recently by apartment owners, regardless if the animal fits health and breeding profiles. While Marler speaks favorably of the dogs, the polarization of the animal as dangerous in recent years creates too much negativity.
“The public perception of Dobermans, of Rottweillers, German Shepherds, of pit bulls, is that these are aggressive animals,” she said. “Part of what a service dog should do is to make you want to go up and talk to that person in a wheelchair, rather than be afraid of them.”
Support for Pit Bulls as Service Animals Growing
Pit bull advocacy groups and even disabled persons who use the animals for service are challenging that perception. The Americans With Disabilities Act doesn’t discriminate on breed types for service animals, but city bans and restricted breed lists have caused a stir when pit bulls arrive for service.
The American Pit Bull Registry (APBR), which is said to be the world’s largest pit bull registry, promotes on its website that pit bulls are currently used and suitable for all types of service work including drug detection, emergency rescue, service and therapy work, military service and more. No statistics are available for the number of pit bulls in service work.
The American Pit Bull actually ranks among the highest in temperament testing, according to The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (ATTS), a national not-for-profit organization that evaluates temperaments of purebred and spayed/neutered mixed-breed dogs. The breed scores one percent better than Golden Retrievers and six percent lower than Labradors.
But letting a pit bull into Baylor’s program is a tough call for Marler.
“I want my client that would be getting the dog to be approachable by the public, and not to be shunned because they have a pit bull,” she said. “It wouldn’t be because of the dog.”
Top Image: Eli demonstrates his skill at retrieving a bottle of water during service dog training.