A while back I wrote a piece on the topic of service dogs for kids and mentioned the use of service dogs in schools. A regular reader of our blog then wrote in with a number of comments and questions about the propriety of dogs in schools. To help answer her questions, I recently spoke with Nancy Fierer, who is the Director at Susquehanna Service Dogs in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is an organization that trains and places service dogs. Susquehanna is the organization that placed two of the dogs mentioned in this NPR story.
The ADA and dogs in school
I also did a little more research on the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and its impact on the issue. The ADA requires that all public facilities allow a disabled person and his or her service dog (not pets) to enter the premises just the same as a non-disabled person. So is a school considered a public facility? It’s an interesting question. On the one hand it is accessible to the public in the sense that parents and students can freely enter a school. However, if you’re not the parent of a child at the school, can you just walk into a school and roam the halls like you might roam around a mall? I think if you tried that, you would get stopped pretty quickly and asked to leave if you had no valid business there. However, the law appears to be settled that schools are considered public facilities at least for those areas that are open to the public such as administrative offices, gymnasiums during sporting events, and auditoriums during public events. Therefore, schools must be accessible to service dogs in these public areas. For class rooms, however, it’s not so clear. While the law appears to favor allowing service dogs in class rooms, it is being decided on a case-by-case basis because there are other considerations as well – the age of the child, the disability at issue, the ability to control the dog, etc.
How much school assistance is necessary?
I have to admit that when I first wrote on this topic, I had envisioned that the dog and child were a self-contained unit that required little in the way of adult assistance. Ms. Fierer indicated that that is usually not the case. Depending on the age of the child and the level of disability, the child may be able to care for the dog independently. However, in most instances an adult (teacher’s aide or nurse perhaps) is required to pitch in with help giving the dog water and taking it out for bathroom breaks. Ms. Fierer indicated that the dog does need water breaks during the day (feeding can be done at home before and after school). This is usually accomplished by keeping a water bowl in a nearby room – perhaps a nurse’s office or a counselor’s office. Several times a day, either the child (if he/she is old enough) or an adult can take the dog for a drink. The same is true for bathroom breaks (pee only; No. 2 is usually taken care of at home). Again, service dogs do require assistance from the school but from what Ms. Fierer told me, the disruption is fairly minimal and can be worked out with proper planning.
Controlling a service dog
A larger issue is the child’s ability to control the dog. Even though service dogs are highly trained, the owner (in this case a child) must still be able to control the dog before being permitted to take a dog into school. These include such basic commands as making the dog sit, stay, come, leave it, and walk on loose leash. These are some of the common commands that all service dogs must know. In addition, a service dog also receives additional training in a particular disability and learns specific commands unique to that disability, e.g., retrieving specific items, pulling a wheelchair, responding to seizures, search and rescue. These commands must be mastered as well. For example, if an autistic child is in need of the dog to put its head in the child’s lap to help calm him/her down, the child (or a trained adult) has to be able to give the dog that command. If the child cannot give that command to the dog, then it undermines the usefulness of the dog in school.
Because of the demands that service dogs place on the child, very young children usually do not take dogs to school unescorted. Ms. Fierer said she would be surprised to see a six-year-old, for example, taking a dog to school alone. Older children can, with proper training, be permitted to take a dog to school alone. To ensure that the child is capable of caring for the dog, Susquehanna utilizes the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test. This test requires the owner and the dog to perform multiple tests in a variety of settings to ensure that the dog is well-trained and that the owner can properly control the dog. For children, Ms. Fierer indicated that the testing is usually administered with the parent and child because she uses the team approach – the parent, child and dog are a team. For a child taking the dog to school, however, the parent is usually not there so the child must be able to control the dog independently. Only when a child is adept at controlling the dog should the child be permitted to take the dog to school. Even then, parents have to work closely with the child’s teacher and other school staff to coordinate the details of how the dog will be cared for.
Our reader also asked questions about whether service dogs are a distraction in school and whether they can pose a danger to other children. After talking to Ms. Fierer, it’s my opinion that these are not major concerns. As for being a distraction, Ms. Fierer said that is usually not the case. Service dogs are generally introduced into the school gradually, starting with maybe a half-hour per day and building from there. The children get accustomed to the dog and the novelty soon wears off. Also, the other children need to be educated that this is a service dog and not a pet to be played with. Children can easily learn this lesson. As for being a danger to other children, Ms. Fierer said she has never heard of a dangerous incident happening at school such as a dog biting a child. These dogs are amazingly well-trained and the trainers allow zero tolerance for aggressive behavior. If a dog shows any aggression, that dog does not make the cut for being a service dog. Therefore, I don’t believe this concern is a valid reason for denying a child a service dog.
Training a service dog
In terms of the actual training given to the dogs, Ms. Fierer said that when a puppy is eight weeks old, it starts living with a dedicated puppy handler who is responsible for teaching the dog basic manners. This time includes classes at Susquehanna twice per month. This arrangement goes on till the dog is 18 months old, at which time the dog receives about six months of intense training. About 50-60 percent of training is the same for all service dogs. The rest is devoted to the unique needs of each disability. Before a dog is placed, Susquehanna spends about 2 and ½ weeks training the family that is receiving the dog. Even after placement, Susquehanna continues to do follow-up training – at first on a weekly basis and then gradually declining over the next six months. It even does annual re-testing.
I hope this follow-up addresses our readers’ concerns. Ms. Fierer emphasized that service dogs are not the solution for every child. Susquehanna actually does therapy sessions with families before even agreeing to place a dog to ensure that the dog and the family are a good fit. She indicated that it is a big responsibility to own a service dog and it is not a decision that is made lightly by the dog trainers. However, for the right child and the right family, a service dog can be an amazing asset.
Related Nash and Associates Links:
photo from servicedogtraining.wordpress.com