Comforting the Comfort Dog – The Conundrum

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If you have been on an airplane in the last couple of years, perhaps a bus, or in a store of any kind, chances are you have seen someone with a dog.

I am not sure that the world has become more dog friendly necessarily, but rather more people are finding a need to have their dog with them.

PUBLIC ACCESS DOGS – The American Disabilities Act has guidelines and definitions for dogs in service for medical, physical, or emotional/mental needs. And in-between these guidelines is a gigantic gray area of interpretation. The only aspect that cannot be misinterpreted is the need for any dog in service to be a public access dog, meaning that the dog will not cause harm to people, places, events, things, or other animals, while out in public. So a polite, well socialized, stable temperament dog, shouldn’t all dog owners shoot for this criteria!

LEVELS OF SERVICE – There are specific designations for specific jobs, and again, a pacific ocean size gray area of interpretation and understanding. None of this is ‘good or bad’ nor should it be judged that way, this is just what it is.

SERVICE DOG – A service dog is listed as a piece of medical equipment for someone with a life limiting disability, where a dog will add in some way to the quality of life of the person in need. A service dog has 100% access to all locations and means of transportation as long as the dog does not cause harm to people, places, events, things, or other animals. The law protects the access rights to service dog Teams, and interfering with a service dog Team in anyway, even your off leash dog getting in the way, can be a felony offense.

GUIDE DOG – A guide dog is the same as a service dog but designated for people with limited vision, or fully blind.

MEDICAL ALERT – A medical alert dog is a service dog but trained specifically to alert to a specific medical need – sound alert of hearing impaired, seizure alert, diabetic alert, migraine alert, etc.

ASSISTANCE DOG – a service dog by another name, often time used with people that have limited mobility, or life limiting mental illness. The flip flopping of service/assistance terminology seems to be a regional thing, and can create a gray zone of understanding.

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT DOG – a dog that is used most often times like a service dog, but is not a service dog, nor trained to that standard. Most often times this term is used with people with PTSD, panic attacks, in cases of traumatizing live changes like divorce or abuse, etc. Sometimes families of autistic children purchase a ‘Service/Emotional Support Dog’ in hopes of calming their child, or used to track their roaming child. Big huge gray zone of understanding, and often times causes a lot of confusion in public places.

COMFORT/ASSIST DOGS – This is the biggest gray zone out there. A service dog or not? It really depends on who you talk too, when you talk to them, and what state just changed what guideline to accept or decline the use of such dogs.

Basically if you talk to enough people, you will eventually find the answer you were looking for, and it would be hard to prove it right or wrong.

Comfort dogs are not listed as a piece of medical equipment, the owners are not held to a standard of care or training, and they have limited access to public locations. So basically a pet that has a few more legal places they can access, that was specifically chosen to bring more comfort into the home.

PROBLEMS – With any type of anything, whether it is pharmaceutical drugs, a dog, a therapy, buying a car, or a house, or a school for your child, there needs to be a great deal of effort put into investigating the right choice for you, and to know why it is the right choice.

What I have seen play out in the past fifteen years is that from friends, to family, to licensed professionals working with people with a problem, a need for support, or a life limiting disability, ideas or notions are gifted out that a dog would help solve everything. As if dogs were a wonder pill of sorts.

Often times, in my professional experience, the conversation of selection, care, nurturing, socialization, training, nutritional support, exercise, and the cost (not just purchase price but yearly up keep cost) never arises. Never.

So get a dog.

Caring for another living being, especially one that will be put into service, takes a great deal of consideration, or should anyway, and it should not be treated as the same as tossing of pharmaceuticals to ‘fix’ something, or mask fixing something.

And in my professional experience, I have seen more people get a comfort-dog, with no knowledge or idea of temperament selection, or care needed, that end up in some way, becoming the comfort-person for their now in-need of dog.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t know, I think it is more of a conundrum, I think for some of my clients that become the comfort-person for their dog, accidentally, it kind of gives them a whole new purpose in life, where they aren’t relying on the dog to give them anything, but rather they learn to step up to the plate and do something for another living being. I see more comforting of the comfort dog than the other way around.

It doesn’t always play out that way, sometimes a dog, any living being for that matter, was the wrong suggestion for a certain person, but that falls into the ‘didn’t investigate or do research’ category, and had no support from others going forward.

I don’t think it is a good thing for people (including professionals in the medical industry) to suggest to anyone to get a dog for any level of service, unless that person is ready for a dog, in all aspects, and has the full support, emotionally, financially, and socially, to give the appropriate care.

Be thoughtful, take the time to investigate, research, find support, learn more about dogs, their needs, and your responsibilities. All dogs deserve our efforts, Nancy

7 comments

  1. Don’t forget about certified Therapy Dogs. The Therapy Dogs seen around Bozeman are governed by Intermountain Therapy Dogs based in Salt Lake City. After the education and certification process, teams (owner and dog) visit hospitals, nursing homes, elementary schools (extra certification in the R.E.A.D. Program), MSU campus, courtrooms, etc on a mission to provide stress reducing moments for those in need. The point is TO PET THEM. I spend a good portion of my time during visits, however, explaining the difference between a service dog, comfort dog and therapy dog. Oh vey.

    1. I believe there are two other animal therapy groups in town now, and there is always confusion between therapy and service dogs, and the quickest and easiest explanation is a therapy dog gives Comfort to others a service dog provides a service to the owner

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