The Increasingly Uncertain Origins Of Service Dogs
From alerting us to intruders to rescuing survivors of disasters, our canine friends have proven themselves to be incredibly valuable partners in more than just companionship. In recent history, dogs have been trained to assist those with disabilities, including visual and hearing impairments, mobility issues, autism, and chronic illnesses like diabetes and epilepsy. This practice not only helps humans with their daily tasks, but improves their general sense of well-being, independence, fulfillment, and social interaction – just like any companion animal. But how much do we really know about the training of these animals, or their general demographics? This study attempts to answer that question.
Assistance Dogs International (ADI), an organization that establishes guidelines for service dog training, specifies three categories of assistance dog: guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf/hard of hearing, and service dogs – a catchall category which includes roles such as psychiatric support, aid to those in wheelchairs, epileptic seizure and hypoglycemia detection, and aid for families with autistic children. In the U.S., psychiatric service dogs are one of the fastest-growing categories of service animal: from 2000 to 2002, they accounted for only 17% of registered dogs, but in 2010-2012, they grew to 31.9% of the registered dog population, and a further 19% were classified as emotional support animals.
To better understand this rapidly growing and changing industry, these authors surveyed training facilities accredited by ADI and International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), as well as unaccredited facilities found online. The authors asked for the total number of dogs placed, as well as the number placed in each category – guide, hearing, and service. They also asked for information on the facility’s training methods, as well as the sources and breeds of dogs used, and the accreditation status of the facility. The survey data is representative of 34 international accredited facilities, 55 accredited North American facilities, and 22 non-accredited facilities in the U.S., out of 229 accredited and 170 non-accredited facilities contacted for survey responses.
Accredited facilities in North America placed a median of 10 dogs per year, while non-accredited facilities placed a median of 8. The highest number of dogs placed by a North American accredited facility was 233, the highest by an international accredited facility was 110, and the highest by a non-accredited institution was 136. Guide and mobility dogs accounted for 39% and 40% of dogs placed by accredited North American facilities, respectively, with the remaining 22% being hearing or other service dogs. Non-accredited facilities primarily placed psychiatric service dogs. The number of accredited facilities in North America grew by only 4% from 2013-14 while non-accredited grew by 14% during the same period. In contrast, European facilities grew by 23%. Accredited facilities almost often bred their own dogs, rather than adopting ones from shelters or helping people train their own dogs, while non-accredited facilities did the opposite. Guide dogs were usually raised and placed by larger and older facilities in the U.S., while mobility and hearing dogs usually came from facilities established in the 1970s and other service dogs from facilities founded in the 1990s or 2000s. Non-accredited facilities were much newer than accredited ones, on average, with most being founded in the 2000s or 2010s.
This review paints a picture of two worlds when it comes to service dog breeding and training. On one side we have established, accredited facilities that tend to be decades old and focus on guide, hearing, and mobility dogs that are bred specifically for that purpose. On the other, we have smaller, newer facilities that lack accreditation and focus on training psychiatric service dogs, many of which come from shelters or are already companion animals.
Further research should be done on non-accredited facilities to ensure that they are in fact training their dogs adequately and treating them humanely. The rapid growth in demand for psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals runs the risk of creating an industry of get-rich-quick schemes that take advantage of both animals and humans. A regulation process and clear guidelines for facilities should be enacted at the national level to ensure that this does not occur any further than it already has.