Service Dogs, Students, and Environments They Access

Written by Kristin Hartness


Service dogs are working more and more with students. Those present in schools, colleges, camps, and other similar environments often struggle to understand the laws defining service dogs, what to expect from trained service dogs, and how to embrace them.

Schools (for the purposes of this article, “school” includes all student-focused environments) struggle to balance the needs of all students, especially those with physical, physiological, or developmental disabilities while providing the best education possible. They must provide adaptive tools for educational purposes and determine when a student needs educational adaptations and when those adaptations are no longer needed. They must create safe spaces that promote learning and where students can excel. Balancing the needs of one student when they appear to conflict with those of another is an ongoing struggle; it is a struggle that can quickly become a battle between the family and the school. Students using service dogs can quickly become entangled in a struggle for access.

An individual education plan, or IEP, is used to establish the resources to be used for educating the individual student. Schools use IEPs to track, adjust, add, or remove educational tools, accommodations, and adaptations needed for an individual student to get the best education possible. Things like speech therapy, one-on-one aides, adaptive tablets, and much more can be listed in IEPs, and are regularly reported on and adjusted as needed. Schools are in control of the IEP as part of their commitment to doing what it takes to provide the best education possible.

Service dogs are not educational tools. Service dogs are access tools. Access tools include wheelchairs, braces, forearm crutches, eyeglasses, and more. These tools should be documented under a 504 plan. Some schools are very familiar and comfortable with 504s, but my experience is that most are not. Many schools like to list all disability accommodations under the IEP. This is not only inappropriate but wrong.

Administrators like to be in control of their environments. It can be uncomfortable when they are introduced to a tool they are not familiar with or that they don’t understand. How the student, their family, and the service dog training program start conversations about the service dog, and how they describe the job of the animal, can make all the difference.

Service dogs in the United States must have individually trained skills specific to the person’s disability. These trained skills do not include emotional support or comfort behaviors. Yes, service dog users receive emotional support from their dogs. It is important to separate the trained skills that bring greater independence from the behaviors that provide comfort, companionship and emotional support. For example, a seizure alert dog has the trained skill of alerting the handler to the oncoming seizure (a service dog skill), and then provides comfort by lying with the person, providing warmth and a reassuring presence during the post-seizure time (comfort).

Challenges for schools

Schools may be familiar with some service dogs working with adults, but they may struggle to see how a service dog expands the independent access of the student. They may feel they can provide an aide or other human resources to do the work of the service dog. They may not understand how the service dog brings greater independence to the student than a human aide. They may see dogs filling important roles in animal intervention—therapy dogs visiting students during high-stress times and exams, working with councilors, assisting in speech, physical and occupational therapy, and more—and group these dogs with service dogs. This can lead to confusion about the different job of a service dog.

Concerns about who is responsible for the dog are high when a service dog is entering the school environment. Facilities should not take responsibility for the service dog in any way. This means the schools are not providing handlers or instructing the dog, except in emergency situations. Students using service dogs should be fully responsible for the animal, able to keep them under their control, instruct them and, in the case of medical alert dogs, be able to respond appropriately to the alert when given. Schools are especially vigilant about students keeping the service dog from doing anything that appears out of control—no jumping, no barking, no eating scraps from the floor or taking treats from other people. Therefore it is expected that handlers will keep the dog on leash and in close heel or side position when walking, and that the dog will stay down under or next to the handler’s workspace. Dogs that require off-leash time to complete a task under verbal control should quickly and unobtrusively be put back on leash when the task is complete to reinforce the control.

Schools are also watching to be sure the dog is not interfering with the educational schedule. This means the student allows the dog to eliminate before school starts, at lunch, and at the end of school, not during instructional time. The student should not need to leave early or arrive late for class because the service dog needs elimination or water breaks.(The exception to this would be if the dog becomes sick in class.)

Questions about other students’ and staff fears and possible allergies can be the most pressing concern of administrators. They need to consider how allowing access to one student might prevent access to another. Discussions about how to accommodate the needs and concerns of all students must be part of the early conversations. The United States law requires all students have access. Investigate options for each situation. Can the students be seated with enough space for both to comfortably learn? Can the student with the documented allergy or fear be shifted to a different session of the same class? Working together to find the best solution for each individual situation is the key.

 Erica and Baker, a mobility service dog trained by NEADS. This team works independently at Erica’s school.

Erica and Baker, a mobility service dog trained by NEADS. This team works independently at Erica’s school.

Language is very important when working with schools. Knowing what can be required versus what must be requested by the school goes a long way in keeping conversations respectful and encouraging families and schools to work together. In the United States, the ADA says facilities cannot require special identification or training documents for the service dog or medical records. The ADA does allow facilities to ask what work or tasks (skills) the dog has been trained to perform for the individual. The school cannot require documentation from a trainer or training program, but they can require the student, or their parents, state what the trained skills are. If the school tries to require this information, I have found that the conversation between student and school can sometimes become disrespectful and hostile as it can shift to a power play between the school and the student. This can result in unnecessary delays to the use of the service dog in the school. Clearly stating the role of the service dog without emotion is important in establishing proper expectations and reducing confusion.

The school can also request a copy of the dog license issued by the town or city where the student lives and a copy of the rabies certificate. These are public record documents, and can make the school feel comfortable that the dog is medically cared for. Requesting and sharing these documents helps build a relationship between the school and the student.

The role of service dog training programs

Service dog training programs must work with students, parents, and schools to set proper expectations. I encourage them to stress that students must be fully responsible at school as well as all other environments. Students (and parents) can be accustomed to schools providing educational accommodations that are not extended in workplaces or restaurants, stores, and other social experiences. This is comfortable and supportive, and can greatly enhance the educational environment. However, it can also result in expectations that the school will unofficially take responsibility for the dog, for example by handling the dog for an elimination run so the student can go to lunch, or by jumping in to prevent other students from touching or feeding the dog instead of letting the student tell the others to stop. This can negatively affect the independence of the student.

We recommend service dog training programs have a client support person who can travel to the handler’s school, or that programs bring in outside sources to work with the school. There are advantages to both ways. Schools benefit from formal training. Teachers are conditioned to learn in classroom-like settings. Providing programs that teach about all service dogs, with some specifics about the individual team attending that school, gives the school confidence in their ability to support the service dog team. Some schools prefer the presentation is provided by a different organization, because it separates the student, the training program, and the education. Is the student fully responsible? Do they need some supervision? Do they need a third-party handler to instruct and control the dog? If the answer to the first question is anything other than a resounding “yes,” the school will have understandable concerns about the service dog attending. Does the third-party who is handling or supervising the team pass requirements to be in the school like a CORI check or volunteer training? Is the third-party handler interfering with the education of the student? What is the dog’s trained skill(s) that promote the student’s access to school?

Austin and Paris are a facilitated team. Paris is a seizure alert dog trained by 4 Paws for Ability. The school chose to provide a handler when Austin is at school. The current hope is that Austin will work independently with his next dog.

Talking about the dog’s specific skills

Be sure the student can tell people what the dog’s trained skills are in a clear, precise way, without using terms that sound like comfort, companionship or emotional support.They should be able to explain what the dog’s trained skill(s) that promote the student’s access to school are. They should also be able to explain any bonus behaviors, which can assist with therapies or education but are not considered a service behavior.

For example, sometimes a student says the dog calms them instead of saying the dog gives deep pressure, or that the dog rests their head on the knee of a student with anxiety so the student can refocus rather than the dog providing a nudge to alert the student they are entering an episode. When this happens, the school community may come to believe that this dog is providing comfort, similar to what their pets do. Clearly stating the individual trained skills that directly relate to the disability is an important step for all public access, and it is critical in student-focused environments.

Bonuses are wonderful. When trainers can add bonus behaviors that assist in therapies, service dog users can find the dog even more valuable.

Some examples of bonus behaviors:
• Using a service dog to help in speech, physical or occupational therapy — a school therapist who wants to use all resources to advance the student’s therapy may use the service dog to motivate the student. One speech therapist told me her student made progress with language so she could clearly say her dog’s name. An occupational therapist told me she uses the student’s service dog to encourage hand/eye coordination zipping the dog’s vest, clipping the dog’s leash and other behaviors the student needed to practice.
• Councilors may use the presence of the service dog to foster a safe environment for conversations in therapy sessions, encouraging the student to cuddle, pet or even talk to the dog rather than to the councilor directly.
• Teachers may include the service dog in the classroom helping the student to practice good social interactions — the student may introduce the dog to other children allowing the other children to pet the dog when the other children have asked — this behavior can help build friendships; encouraging students in the classroom to have “appropriate” behavior for the comfort of the dog rather than for the comfort of other classmates

However, the bonuses are not what make the dog a service dog and it is important that the bonuses are not listed as the trained skills. The bonus behavior may influence the school’s desire to put the dog under an IEP, which they control. If the dog is under an IEP and the school can show the student does not need the bonus behavior in the school environment, the school can remove the dog. All bonus behaviors should be used by the school only with the approval and instruction of the student’s parents and the dog’s trainer

Service dogs are growing in importance as tools in the independence of many students. Teaching users how to clearly state the trained skills the service animal has that directly relate to their individual disability is as important as teaching them how to be responsible, maintain proper public behavior and use the dog’s trained skills for greater independence.
Schools may present a great many challenges for service dog teams to access; this makes them places that challenge the industry to produce the best dog-handler teams possible.

 Kelsey and Curran, a mobility team trained by NEADS

Kelsey and Curran, a mobility team trained by NEADS.

 Carelia and Gaz, a diabetic alert team trained by Eyes, Ears, Nose & Paws

Carelia and Gaz, a diabetic alert team trained by Eyes, Ears, Nose & Paws.

Kristin Hartness is the executive director of Canines for Disabled Kids and service dog user for many years. Advocate, public speaker, consultant, Kristin combines personal experience and knowledge of the American with Disabilities Act to assure service dogs have full access and are valued as important tools for independence in all the environments their partners will journey. Kristin specializes working with families, schools and other student environments. Kristin can be reach through