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Understanding Service Animals

Under the Customer Service Standard of the AODA, service providers’ policies must state that they welcome service animals. The Standard discusses how service providers must allow service animals in almost all public places. It also outlines what providers must do to accommodate customers who need to go to places where their service animals are excluded by law. However, service providers committed to obeying these laws may still have many questions about service animals, such as what they do and how to behave around them. Here we offer some best practices for understanding service animals that service providers should follow.

Understanding Service Animals

What do service animals do?

Providers know that service animals help their handlers maintain their independence, but might still wonder what, exactly, service animals do. Service animals help people with disabilities or conditions such as:

  • Visual impairments
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Hearing disabilities
  • physical disabilities

Moreover, they perform tasks, such as:

  • Guiding a person around obstacles
  • Alerting a person about low blood sugar levels
  • Protecting a person during seizures
  • Calming a person in an environment with too much sensory stimulation and preventing behavioural outbursts
  • Retrieving out-of-reach objects
  • Alerting a person to sounds

Furthermore, service animals assist their handlers everywhere in their communities, including places and events such as:

  • Stores
  • Restaurants
  • Buses, taxis, trains, and planes
  • Hotels
  • Government buildings
  • Schools, colleges, and universities
  • Places of Worship
  • Movie theatres, concerts, and sports games
  • Amusement parks

Training for Service Animals

Service animals are working animals. They are not pets. Instead, they are assistants or guides for people with a variety of disabilities. Since they must learn to perform different tasks depending on their handlers’ needs, each animal’s training is often individualized. Guide dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired receive their training from programs approved under the Blind Persons’ Rights Act. However, there are no legal requirements prescribing specific kinds of training for service animals assisting people with other disabilities. Handlers may train their own service animals or work with professional trainers. Nevertheless, training always includes how to behave appropriately in public places. For instance, good service animal behaviour includes:

  • Focusing on the handler’s needs
  • Avoiding distractions
  • Never barking, growling, or jumping

Dos and don’ts when encountering service animals

What does it really mean to welcome customers with service animals? Once customers and their service animals are on the premises, what should providers do? What shouldn’t they do? Here is a list with some suggestions.

For instance, do:

  • Pay attention to the owner, not the animal
  • Ask what tasks the animal assists with, not what the handler’s diagnosis is

On the other hand, don’t:

  • Ask that the animal be left elsewhere
  • Pet the animal, unless its handler gives permission
  • Call the animal
  • Feed the animal
  • Entice the animal with toys
  • Disturb the animal if it is sleeping

Handlers understand that people are curious about their animals and are often happy to answer a few questions about them. In addition, some handlers may also be willing to talk briefly about their disabilities. However, others may be busy or prefer to talk about something else.

Interacting with service animals

Furthermore, many animals are trained to find help if their handlers need human assistance. Therefore, if a service animal approaches without its handler in sight, the handler may need help, so service providers should interact with the animal. Providers should use simple commands, for example:

  • Where is your handler?
  • What’s wrong?
  • Where’s the trouble?
  • Do you need help?

If service providers follow these best practices for understanding service animals, they can truly welcome all customers.