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Family's Failed Service Dog Experience Highlights Need For Better Standards

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When the Maxfield family noticed their autistic son tended to run toward roads and bodies of water, they grew concerned for his safety. The Maxfields, who live on a busy street in Franklin, Mass., realized a service dog could play an important role in keeping their son safe. They proceeded to raise over $16,000 on GoFundMe for a service dog from Ry-Con Service Dogs, a nonprofit in North Carolina, they thought they could rely on.

However, the Maxfields found that Teddy, the service dog that was supposed to be specially trained to help their autistic son, was not adequately trained. The owner of Ry-Con Service Dogs cited the closure of his business as the reason why Teddy was not trained to serve their needs. 

This incident highlights the lack of guidelines for the training of service dogs. Service dogs can play an instrumental role in helping people with disabilities, chronic illnesses and mental health issues. This is why proper training is so important. Why are some service dogs inadequately trained? A lack of guidelines and standards may be to blame.

The only federal guidelines that address service dogs is the American with Disabilities Act. Even so, these guidelines only talk about how animals must behave in public and where service dogs are allowed to go. There is no mention of what training dogs must or should receive. 

While the U.S. government does not have federal guidelines for training service dogs, there are organizations that set standards for service dogs. These organizations partner with nonprofits that train service dogs to follow the organization’s standards. One of these organizations is Assistance Dogs International (ADI).

ADI offers general service dog standards and standards specifically for dogs aiding veterans who have PTSD.

“Our primary mission is to develop standards for the industry [and] apply the standards to an accreditation process,” Chris Diefenthaler, ADI operations manager, told The Mighty. “Part of our mission is to also provide education and awareness to the public. We also support our members [nonprofits] through education workshops and best practices.”

ADI’s standards themselves are fairly general. They include requirements like mandating programs follow-up with clients and keep detailed training reports. The ADI has not taken a stance on whether or not there should be federal regulations for service dog training. It does find it crucial, however, that service dogs are properly trained.

“ADI is very concerned about ill-trained service dogs being presented in public and as well as fake service dogs, who are pets, that someone is taking out in public,” Diefenthaler said. “Sometimes a service dog is injured due to [the behavior of] an inappropriately trained dog out in public.”

As Diefenthaler noted, some service dogs are ill-trained, like the puppy the Maxfield family picked up. Others, however, do not have the temperment to be service dogs.

Mighty contributor Shannon Reyenga wanted to train her dog to be a hearing dog. “After months of working with him, my husband and I enlisted the help of a professional dog trainer to help us,” she said. “After two weeks of working with him daily, she determined he did not have the focus needed to engage in service dog training. In fact, she found his high energy temperament difficult to engage within regular training.”

I have thought about training my Havanese dog to be a service dog for my anxiety and PTSD, but his temperament would not cut it. As much as I think he’s the best dog in the world, his own anxious tendencies would not do anything to help me during my own episodes of panic.

While we can train breeds known to be reliable service animals, we need better guidelines for what those dogs are trained to do. Guidelines should not be too specific since service dogs will have specific duties related to the person they are assisting. However, a set of federally-mandated standards, similar to those that ADI proposes, may be the best route. Groups that train service dogs need to be held to regulated standards in order to better help people with disabilities. If you are spending thousands of dollars on a service animal, there should at least be some guarantee the animal you receive is trained. 

Getty image by bobbymn

Originally published: November 29, 2018
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