Training Articles / MaTTT

Training Articles / #MaTTT

Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals & Therapy Dogs
The question of Service Dog Training, and often Service Dog Certification, is one that is asked many times per week. The gift that dogs give us, in aiding humans, is one that we hold near and dear and are understandably protective of. There is SO much misinformation being circulated, that we felt it was an important topic.

First and foremost, any one who is in contact with dogs in a public setting should familiarize themselves with the laws spelled out by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whether you are a store owner, or someone wanting to take your dog into the store, you need to know the laws. Highlights of the ADA will be discussed here, but read the law and keep it close. It exists to protect those who need a Service Dog, and thereby helps protect against those who are trying to use segments of the law to take their pet everywhere they go.

The terms “Therapy Dog,” “Emotional Support Dog” and “Service Dog” are often used interchangeably. So let’s start with some definitions.

– A Therapy Dog is a pet who goes out into public with the purpose of enriching the lives of others. They typically undergo a temperament evaluation and obedience test, and are certified by one of the Therapy Dog Organizations throughout the country. The amazing impact therapy dogs have on those they interact with is profound. Children improve their skills reading to them, hospital patients are comforted by them, nursing home patients are amused by them, trauma victims seek comfort in their fur. A Therapy Dog is an outwardly focused dog who interacts with and benefits other people, in addition to their owner/handler. Therapy Dogs have no public access rights.

– An Emotional Support Dog (ESD) is one whose presence is a comfort to the owner. Perhaps they calm during high anxiety times, or help ease fear. Just being near is their job – and being attentive to their owner. They need no special training, though they can not be a disturbance. The touch, the feel, the PRESENCE of the dog is what the owner relies on. An ESD has rights only pertaining to housing and transportation. A handler for an Emotional Support Dog must have a specifically formatted letter provided by their medical professional within a specific time frame, and that documentation can be required before access is granted to housing or transportation.

– A Service Dog (SD) is a medically necessary animal that aids in the disabled person’s daily life. It is not a pet, it is a necessity. The disability can be physical or mental, and the dog must perform specific tasks to mitigate the handler’s disability. Each dog is required to perform a minimum of two approved tasks to serve as a Service Dog. The ADA specifically states that “presence” is not a task. Being near to keep a person calm is not a task. Retrieving medication is a task. Bracing for mobility assistance is a task. Leading the blind is a task. Seizure alert is a task. Blood sugar alert is a task. There are many resources that list the various tasks a SD can perform, but a minimum of 2 of those tasks are required, and again – just being present is not a legal task. Service Sogs have full access rights. No documentation is required, nor can be requested of the handler. The Service Dog is a Hander Focused dog, working when in public and not seeking interaction with others – nor being granted social time with others.

These distinctions are very important. Just because you WANT to take your dog with you everywhere, doesn’t mean you NEED to take your dog with you.

Service Dogs and their handlers are highly protected by Federal Law, as they should be. Unfortunately, this makes it so some people try to use those laws in an attempt to take their pet along as well. Understanding the use of a SD, and the rights that protect them, we can also protect against those who are not being ethical.

There are only two questions that can be asked of someone with a service dog. 1- “Is your dog a service dog?” 2- “What tasks does your dog perform.” These tasks need to be approved tasks, and once again – presence is not one of them. You can NOT request a demonstration of these tasks.

A dog that is not finished is considered a Service Dog in Training (SDIT). Although the ADA does not cover SDIT, the state of Tennessee does have a law requiring that the dog be “held on a leash and under the control of its raiser or trainer, who shall have available for inspection credentials from the accredited school for which the dog is being raised; and wearing a collar, leash or other appropriate apparel or device that identifies the dog with the accredited school for which it is being raised.”

Any dog that causes a disturbance can be asked to leave, SD or not. This includes dogs that seek attention from other patrons, dogs that soil in a facility, that are vocal outside of their tasks, that are clearly untrained and are running amuck in the establishment. This one rule weeds out a lot of non-SD. Again, a finished SD is a well trained dog that is unobtrusive and attentive to their handler.

A Service Dog is not required to wear any specific identification, vest or uniform. They MAY, at their handler’s discretion. Some people choose to use the vest as a way to indicate when the dog is working and not. This is a personal decision, not a requirement by law.

Finally, there is NO Service Dog registry or certification that is recognized by the ADA. Absolutely none. Requesting such documentation before granting entry is completely against the law. Presenting such registration or certification as a means of gaining entry just shows ignorance of the law. The companies online happily taking your money to register your dog? That registration is legally worth no more than the paper it is printed on. Many training facilities will certify that a dog has been taught specific skills, but this is not legal certification that the dog is a Service Dog. I think this is a very important point. I have known medical facilities, educational institutions and other official bodies requiring registration or certification before granting access. Upon being presented with the laws pertaining to this, the policies have changed.

The ADA protects those individuals who chose to train their own dog with the same laws as those who purchase one already trained. The rules are all the same – until they are a FINISHED working dog, they have limited (SDIT) or no access rights (anything except a finished SD). And no certification is required stating the dog was trained by “Whatever training company” as a Service Dog.

The trainers at ThunderHawk Canine have assisted in the training of numerous Service Dogs, both here and in Michigan. We have assisted in the obedience portion, as well as the assistance task training. We fully support and value the amazing gift of freedom these dogs provide their handlers. We coach our clients about the laws and their rights. We would be on the front lines fighting for our handlers if their rights were being denied. We will not aid someone who is attempting to circumvent the laws to pass off their pet as a working dog. It is only a disservice to those who really need them.

For more information, please visit

Special thanks to Cynthia Kranz for her expertise on this article, and the use of the picture of SD Jami.


Flank Sucking, Lick Granulomas and other OCD Behaviors

“I have a 7 year old male Rottweiler that has a really long lasting habit. He incessantly chews his upper hip near the base of his tail…… ” – Rayn Galloway, Cookeville, TN

This week’s question comes to us from Rayn Galloway, from Jackson County. The initial inquiry, posted at the top, is an intro that was followed up with great information from a pet owner who knows her stuff!! For the sake of this post – we are going to cover some of that same great stuff and go a little deeper.

The first step in diagnosing any behavior problem is to rule out any potential medical issues. We are grateful to have good working relationships with many middle Tennessee veterinarians, so communication between us and your medical team is typically easy and allows for a more complete analysis to be done. In this case, we want to start by ruling out parasites, allergies, anal gland impaction and make sure a complete physical is performed. If all checks out, we can proceed with addressing it behaviorally.

Like humans, many dogs will engage in Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors. Some involve licking, chewing and suckling on themselves. Others can include circling, “fly catching” (when there are no flies present), pacing and more.There are many theories on the subject, and research continues to paint us a better picture of why this occurs. One of the current, science supported, theories is that these dogs have a genetic predisposition to OCD and then there is an environmental component that “triggers” the onset. What this means is that if a dog is genetically predisposed, then stress or a medical issue can open the door for OCD behaviors.

A major component in solving a behavior problem is almost ALWAYS increase mental and physical stimulation. Most dogs are bored. If they were wild, they would have to hunt or scavenge their meals. If they were born into the job for which they were bred, they would be working a farm or flushing game, or some other mentally and physically challenging activity. But not our house pets. They are provided food in a dish and rarely get off of their own property. This frustration and boredom often results in the onset of behavior problems.

However, once OCD behaviors begin, just increasing your dog’s daily exercise and training doesn’t always cause them to stop. The reason for this is that performing the behavior results in the release of serotonin in the dog’s brain – which is pleasurable to the dog. Some dogs will lick/chew their forelimbs to the point of deep lesions to the bone, ignoring the physical discomfort to gain the pleasure sensation of serotonin release.

When a dog is diagnosed with OCD, we need to access how severe the issue really is. Some dogs just use the behavior to self sooth in the evening, or cope with stressful moments. In those dogs, there is no physical injury or irritation. It is much more irritating to the humans than the animal. In those cases, we simply don’t interfere. Increasing mental and physical stimulation is ALWAYS a good idea, and may reduce the occurrence. But if the dog isn’t hurting itself, we don’t draw attention to the behavior. We just monitor to make sure it doesn’t increase in frequency to something that does injure the dog.

In cases where injury is occurring we can step in environmentally, institute preventative measures, and/or medicate.

Environmentally, we can try to identify triggers to the dog’s stress and remove them from the situation. To institute preventative measures, we use bandages, elizabethan collars, taste deterrents or other things to physically prevent the dog from engaging in the behavior. With medications – we treat any injury that may be present, and also treat the brain with serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This class of medication prevents the brain from receiving the gratification it normally feels from a serotonin release. When the dog no longer feels the euphoric effect of serotonin, it is no longer a self rewarding behavior and often stops completely. In many cases, with appropriate intervention, OCD behaviors can be managed.

Thank you for the use of the photos: Valerie Crowell, Rhonda Rhines, Britney Croteau, Melinda Poston, Pam Stout & Sami Hannah