“When our son's doctors first suggested a service dog for him, we were skeptical. We couldn't understand how a dog was going to improve his outlook on life. He is now 7 and a completely different child. Looking back on the days before Clara (dog), it's amazing we survived. Our son enjoys life and is able to cope in public places without falling apart. Something he was completely incapable of one year ago.” 
~Wendy L.

Children with Disabilities and Service Dogs


When are they the right prescription?

There is no question that a service dog can be a tremendous benefit to a person with a disability. When the person is a child, it might be especially difficult to locate a trainer that will best meet the child's needs. Some service dog training centers do not train dogs for children at all, and most have minimum age limits – some as young as 7, but the majority are age 12.

In general, children with disabilities who want a service dog will encounter many of the same stumbling blocks that hinder adults. Many training facilities have waiting lists – some up to 6 years or longer. The expense of training a dog can be prohibitive, with estimates ranging from a low of $350 to $10,000 or more. Some trainers require that the person receiving the dog come to their facility and stay for an extensive training session (some as long as 6 weeks) with the dog before bringing it home. This can be expensive, if costs for travel, room and board must be paid by the individual. Since most children would need the supervision of an adult, it could also mean lost time at work for the parent. A check with the U.S. Department of Labor - Wage and Hour Division found that the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act does not cover this type of situation since it does not fit into the specific criteria for "serious illness."

Evaluating the Benefits

If these obstacles can be overcome, the next item to consider is how a service dog would enhance the child's quality of life, both physically and emotionally. Several papers were presented in 1995 in Geneva at the International Conference on Human Animal Interaction: Animals, Health and Quality of Life. One, entitled Forward, Heal! – The Dog as a Healthcare Option for People Who Have Disabilities, Susan Duncan, RN, details how to evaluate the benefits a service dog could have for a person with a disability. The areas to consider include: activities of daily living difficulty level, stamina, activity level, social integration, safety, nutrition, ability to work/attend school, support systems, and cognitive ability. This paper, with selected other papers from the conference were published in Companion Animals in Human Health (C. Wilson & D. Turner, Eds., Sage, CA, 1998).

Often, one major benefit of having a service dog is increased independence as the dog performs tasks that were formerly impossible for the child. The ways a dog can help are far too numerous to list in this article, but a few examples follow:

  • The child who uses a wheelchair can now retrieve dropped items without having to call an adult for help.
  • The child with a hearing disability is alerted to the school bell signaling a class change.
  • The child with a visual impairment can walk in the park without holding on to another person.
  • This independence can be accompanied by an increase in self-esteem as the child no longer has to rely solely on other people.

Research has shown the general health benefits of companion animals are improved psychological well-being, facilitated learning and improved communication and a source of humor.

The service dog also becomes a constant companion for the child, and can facilitate the child's social interaction with others. Too often a child with a disability is shunned by other children and some adults who feel uncomfortable in the presence of a person with a disability. A service dog can be a great icebreaker, encouraging conversation and the formation of friendships.

Factors to Consider

Despite the many benefits, not all children who have disabilities are good candidates for a service dog. Developmental age and abilities must be carefully evaluated. The individual child must be carefully evaluated for aspects such as emotional maturity and the potential for dog handling ability. Bonnie Bergin, PhD, is developing a curriculum specifically to train children to handle service dogs. This curriculum will be made available to other trainers and will be geared toward the child's level of learning. The goal is to improve the rate of success of selecting the proper dog for each child. A test class of 5 to 6 students was planned for August, 1996.

Dr. Bergin believes that inconsistencies in children's behaviors prevent some children from becoming capable handlers. She hopes to remedy this by teaching the child the necessary behavior patterns so commands and praise will come naturally and consistently. She also notes that the dog and child must be carefully matched. Just as children have different levels of emotional maturity, so do dogs. The personalities of the child and dog need to complement each other, and the dog must be physically capable of doing the work the child needs.

The need for a minimum level of maturity on the child's part is one reason so many trainers set age limits. While it might guarantee physical age, this arbitrary limitation penalizes the individual who is younger but may be developmentally capable, and does not ensure readiness in those who meet or exceed that age. This screening also does little to help children coping with a disability during some of the most critical stages in their personality development. An extreme but poignant case is that of Dylan Shaw.

Dylan is a 2 ½-year-old with cerebral palsy. Born 3½ months prematurely and given little chance for survival, Dylan has cognitive and speech skills appropriate for his age level. His gross motor skills, however are at a 7-month-old level. The result is a very frustrated toddler. Dylan's mother Julie, a registered veterinary technician and dog trainer, is positive a service dog would be of great benefit to Dylan, both physically and emotionally. She is very knowledgeable about the effects a dog can have, and wants those benefits for her child. She has been told Dylan would have to wait until he was 5 years old to get a service dog. Her heartfelt response sums up the plight of those who are unable to obtain a service dog: "I'm telling you my son needs something now! Imagine what his self-esteem will be like in another 2½ years. He is so lonely."

One trainer suggested that Dylan would benefit from a retired service dog – one that was still healthy and capable of obeying commands. With that in mind, Julie has been writing letters and petitioning trainers in the hope that somewhere there is a dog for her son.

Too often many of the disabilities that encumber children are also life threatening. In these cases, the wait period to acquire a service dog literally becomes a matter of life and death. Susan Duncan notes in her paper a situation where an 11-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy was turned down by 2 agencies because he did not meet their 12-year-old limit (even though he was at or above the developmental skills necessary for his grade level). Two other agencies accepted his application, but advised there would be a 4 to 6 year wait. With the development of other health problems and a poor prognosis for life expectancy, the boy might not live to see how a service dog could have helped him.

Let the Buyer Beware

Few guidelines or regulations are in effect for trainers of service dogs. This results in inconsistency within the field. At this time, there is no national standard. To quote Susan Duncan from her paper:

"There is no universal document that defines what consumers should be able to expect when acquiring a service dog. This makes the consumer vulnerable to inconsistent treatment and uninformed decision making."

Because of this, the procurement of a service dog can be a consumer's nightmare. Andrea Allen is a 12-year-old girl with a malignant brain tumor who has had to experience the heartache of losing a service dog she had come to love, even though the dog did not perform acceptably. Andrea's family paid $6,500 for a dog from a trainer that had advertised in "Dogs and the Law" and "Canine Helpers for the Handicapped," a regional newsletter, and had falsely claimed to be a Delta Society affiliate.

Andrea's mother, Susan, said that the trainer, who had retained legal ownership, took the dog back because she had "bladder problems," and never brought her back. The dog also had behavior problems and did not respond well to commands from Andrea. Susan Allen felt the dog was not trained well to begin with, and later realized that the trainer did not have much experience training for people with disabilities. When Allen began litigation to try to recover some of their costs, she found out that this trainer had a history of at least 9 other similar incidents. Allen laments the lack of certification for the field. "There are no guidelines for a person getting into this," she said. "It's not like when you go to a doctor and you have a list of questions to ask." Allen went public with her complaints and was helped to find another training facility. The new agency wanted comprehensive information on Andrea's condition. They sent the Allens a list of training failures as well as successes, making it very clear that there were no guarantees about a match. When told, "some teams just don't click," Allen was amazed. "No one had even told us that before." Final training took place at home, since that was where the dog would work. Allen was also impressed with the follow-up. "Any questions, any problems all I have to do is call " she said.

Though Andrea was very attached to her first dog, she has bonded well with her new dog, a black Lab named Archie. Archie is not as demonstrably affectionate as Andrea's first dog, but Susan raves about his performance. "There is no comparison with the way the dogs were trained. Even with my daughter's speech difficulties he can still respond," she said.

Andrea is a good example of the health benefits a service dog can provide for a child. Though nearly 13, Andrea is the size of a 5-year-old. She can walk a short distance, but she has poor balance. Archie helps her to walk by giving her something to lean on. He turns lights off and on, pulls her wheelchair, picks up dropped items and even takes off her socks. Andrea is also hard of hearing and visually impaired. Archie alerts Andrea to alarms, door bells, the phone and other noises. He also makes sure Susan is notified when the alarm of Andrea's nutritional pumps sound.

Archie is Andrea's true companion; he goes to school with her, and he sleeps on her bed. Susan says that Archie has helped Andrea to make friends. "He gives her something to talk to other people about. Everybody knows her. When they see her with Archie on the street they beep and wave," said Susan. Susan noted with pride that Andrea and Archie raised over $500 together in a walk-a-thon for their local humane society – something Andrea never would have considered participating in before.

Andrea's initial nightmare turned out to have a happy ending, but that's not the case for many who have a bad experience with a "professionally trained" service dog. Until there is a system of standards and regulations, it will be up to the consumers to arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible before choosing a trainer.

Realistic Expectations

As with most healthcare options, a service dog is no guarantee for improvement in condition. However, it can be an important, cost-effective solution to a number of difficulties for the child with a disability. As with most things in life, the key is to evaluate the situation as carefully as possible, keeping expectations realistic and conditions flexible.

Originally published in Alert, National Service Dog Center® Newsletter Vol. 6, No. 3 1995. Edited for the web and updates.


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