There are many questions and concerns involving the use of Service Dogs by children in schools, but it is becoming a recurring theme in the news of late. So I decided to write a post about it to better educate parents in case this becomes an issue in your school. What are the pros and cons? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Are there risks to your child both physically and educationally by having a dog in the classroom? These are all topics I would like to discuss with you, because I think they are important.
So I think the first step needs to be precisely defining what a Service Dog is, and what their role is for a person with disabilities. And I think it is important to explain that not all disabilities that require a Service Dog are visible.
That being said, in layman’s terms, a Service Dog (or SD) is a dog that has been specifically trained to perform certain TASKS that allow the owner with disabilities the ability to live a full and independent life. What do I mean by ‘tasks”? Let’s break it down into obvious and not-so obvious disabilities (visible –vs- invisible) that allow a person to function and perform what we call ‘daily living skills.’
- Someone in a wheelchair may have a dog that pulls the wheelchair for them.
- Someone who has difficulty walking due to certain medical conditions (such as Multiple Sclerosis or Cerebral Palsy) may use their dog to lean on to get them from one place to another. (Also known as a Mobility Support Animal)
- Someone who is blind may have a guide dog.
- Someone who suffers from seizures may have a seizure alert dog. Under ‘typical’ circumstances, they look just like everyone else and you would never know they have a debilitating disability. But this dog can save their life. The dog cannot stop the seizure from actually happening, but by ‘alerting’ their person (often with a touch or a whine or bark) that a seizure is imminent…. it allows the person time to get themselves into a safe position (ie: lying down or out of the shower or tub) so when the seizure hits, they do not fall from a standing position, causing a possible head injury, or drown in a shower or tub.
- Someone who suffers from diabetes may have a diabetic alert dog. The dog is trained to ‘alert’ their person if their glucose levels becomes very low, or too high. Unlike the seizure alert dog, where the dog cannot physically stop the seizure from happening, by alerting their person that their sugar levels have changed, it enables the person time they would not have had before to check their sugar levels and correct the situation before it can become dangerous.
Put yourself in the shoes of the parent of the children who suffer these disabilities (and many others….. there are just too many to list) and ask yourselves this: if you had a child with some of these issues, how much comfort would it give you to know that they have a constant ‘early detection device’ with them at all times?
I have touched on some of the life-saving ‘pro’s’ of the child having their Service Dog with them. But here are a few other benefits:
- Integration into everyday life: A child with disabilities can easily feel ostracized or different from other people. This may make them shy, insecure, fearful, and at times unable to talk to or connect with their peers that they see as ‘normal’. They are more open to taunting and bullying. I mentioned in a previous post how I was once so painfully insecure, I did not know how to approach or talk to people. What I did not mention was that had it not been for my Golden Retriever Radar, I doubt I would have made it to or through my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting! In my mind, it was just one more group of people that would reject me! But amazingly, walking in with my dog broke the ice. People approached ME and asked me questions, which opened up that line of communication I so desperately needed!
- Independence: If you are anything like me, asking for help is never an easy thing. I like to be self-reliant. So imagine having to constantly ask for help with things, and what a toll that might take on your self-esteem and confidence daily? Now imagine having something that suddenly allows you to do for yourself what you previously always had to ask others to do for you? Can you imagine the sense of freedom that would give you?
I want to share with you here a wonderful short video that can show you first-hand (From the perspective of both a parent and a child) how a service dog can drastically change the life of a child.
So what we have focused on until now are the positives for the parent and child WITH disabilities. So if you are a parent who has a child with disabilities, this post may open new doors for you!! After reading this, you may have never thought of getting a Service Dog for your child, and this may have shed some light on some of the wonderful advantages your child may enjoy by obtaining a Service Dog! If you are interested in learning more about obtaining a service dog for your child, there are numerous organizations that specialize in training Service Dogs specifically for children such as Canines For Kids and 4 Paws for Ability.
But what if you do not have a child that suffers from disabilities, how can having a SD in a classroom affect your child?
First off, it is important to understand that the training that goes into a Service Dog is quite different from the training you would get for an everyday pet. It begins the same way, with basic housebreaking and commands, but after that, it becomes very different. Depending on the type of Service Dog required, some Service Dog training companies such as CCI (Canine Companions for Independence) or the Guide Dog Foundation begin training at eight weeks old or younger. The pups are raised by people or families known as ‘puppy raisers’ where they learn things like the basic commands, leash manners, and are brought into numerous different situations to acclimate them to things like sudden loud noises, (such as cheering at a ball game) flickering lights (such as in a movie theater) constant action (like in a mall or store) or even sudden applause (like at a show.) Then at 18 months, they are brought back to the facility where they came from for extensive training, where they learn specific tasks, like pulling a wheelchair, turning lights on and off, picking things up when they fall on the floor, etc. I will add here that an any given time, the facility may determine that a dog is NOT suitable for this type of work, (they may be a bit too energetic, or may be easily distracted…. all traits that could be very dangerous for the person depending on them!) and their SD training ends there. After about a year of this extensive training, they are finally matched with their eventual owner/handler and for the next six to eight months, the dog/handler team work together at the facility on the challenges the specific owner has that requires the Service Dog’s assistance.
Some Service Dogs, again, depending on the situations the dog is needed for, may be owner taught, or the owner may have hired a professional trainer to make their current dog a Service Dog, but regardless of where they have received their specialized training, all Service Dogs must pass a Service Dog Public Access Test to be recognized as a SD. If you are interested in learning more about what this test requires, and it would make you feel more comfortable about a Service Dog being in your child’s school, you can watch this video on the requirements to pass the test.
So safety-wise, your child should not be at risk having a Service Dog that’s passed the Service Dog Public Access Test in their school, because the training requirements are quite high!
However, there are some potential risks to your child health-wise. For example, if your child has severe allergies to dogs, this may make it very difficult for your child to be in an enclosed environment (such as a classroom) with one.
And educationally… it may cause some issues for your child as well. Let’s face it….having a dog in a classroom (even an extremely well behaved dog, doing nothing but lying quietly next to the child’s desk) can be a major distraction for the first few weeks or months…. especially for a child who is easily distractible to begin with. (Think about the words to Mary Had A Little Lamb…. “It made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school.’)
And lastly, we don’t want to forget about the child who is deathly afraid of dogs! Especially since most dogs trained to work with children tend to be on the larger size for stability reasons.
So how can we make this a win-win situation where everyone is happy? By following some simple guidelines right from the start:
If it is your child’s dog:
- Make sure the school is aware that your child will have a Service Dog with them before the term begins.
- The school has quite enough to do ensuring the safety and well-being of every child in their care. It is not their responsibility to walk, clean up after, or take care of the dog. So you must make sure that either your child can fully tend to their own dog (taking them to potty and cleaning up after them, giving them water, etc.) or make sure to arrange for yourself or someone outside of the school staff to take care of them periodically throughout the day.
- Prepare your child for different scenarios that may come up and coach your child on how to handle them. For example, kids will be curious, and do not know how to ‘sensor’ questions the way adults learn to, so your child may be asked, “What’s wrong with you that you need a dog?” Explain that the child may not necessarily be trying to be cruel, but probably just curious. You can also prepare your child on what to do if someone comes up to pet the dog, or asks to pet the dog. (It might help to have a “Working: Do Not Pet” patch on the dog’s vest.)
- Be aware of your child’s rights to have their dog with them in case you come across any difficulty and you need to advocate for your child. Be willing to be flexible and accommodating if another parent has a kid with severe allergies but is stead-fast on their child staying in a specific classroom for whatever reason. Remember, it is not about who is right and who is wrong here; it is about working together for the best outcome for all children involved.
Suggestions for the school:
- Send out notices to the parents regarding the presence of the dog several months prior to the start of the term. You can even ask the parent of the disabled child if they would like to create the first draft: it will save you hours of worry about wording it correctly and help them to protect their child’s privacy…at a minimum they’ll appreciate your making the effort. Also, sending notices early will give you time to identify any potential conflicts (i.e. if a child with severe allergies or a fear of dogs is scheduled to be in the same class). This will give you ample time to move one of the children into a different classroom prior to school beginning, or to allow parents the opportunity to ask any questions they may have.
Note: keep in mind the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) states: “Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.”
- Hold an assembly or at least a classroom meeting at the start of the year to explain to the children a few important guidelines and boundaries regarding the Service Dog. For example, the fact that the dog is not a pet, but that it is working, and the importance of them not petting or distracting the dog from its job. I find it helpful to explain to children that in this case, the dog is really no different than a wheelchair or crutches would be for a child. I have also found that many children are very excited and proud of their dogs, and the things their dog can do for them… so ask the child if they would like to participate and help talk to the children about their dog. This may also avoid a situation like I mentioned above…. Questions being asked out of curiosity that may hurt a child’s feelings.
If you have a non-disabled child that will be in a class with a SD:
- Talk to your child in advance about there being a Service Dog in the classroom to help a child who needs assistance. Ask for their input if they feel this would make it too distracting for them, and really listen to their answers. Remember, the parent of the disabled child is looking out for the best interest of their child by having the dog; you have to look out for the best interest of yours! It is not a matter of not caring about the other child, but remember, you are always your child’s best advocate! And your child has rights too.
- Encourage them to ask you if they have any questions, and if you are not sure of the answer, spend time with them researching the answer online.
In conclusion, I will wrap this up by saying that it is important to remember that every single child matters! Each child has their own set of strengths and weaknesses that make them special and unique. If we all work together, we can create a safe, loving, caring, and happy environment and future for each and every one of them!