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Not Always Easy as ABC: What to Know About Service Dogs in Schools

Enjoying SchoolWe’ve all seen firsthand or heard stories of the wonderful ways in which service dogs are trained to help people. From dogs trained to guide visually impaired individuals, to those who can detect and alert a person of an impending seizure or blood sugar drop, there is no question that service dogs impact the lives of their owners in profoundly positive ways.

These amazing animals help children as well as adults, but complications can arise when it comes to having service dogs in schools.

What is a Service Dog?

A “service animal”, as defined by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), is a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability. This includes sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and other disabilities. The tasks a service dog performs must be directly related to the person’s disability. Service dogs are not considered “pets”.

Service Dogs in Schools

The ADA requires schools (as well as other government institutions and most businesses) to take reasonable steps to accommodate disabled individuals. Under section 504 of the ADA, schools that forbid a student to bring a service dog in would violate the law, if it means the student would be denied the equal opportunity for an educational program. A school may offer alternatives to the use of a service dog, such as an aide, as long as the student’s needs are effectively met.

Schools often cite problems, such as allergies or disruptions to the class, in an effort to prohibit animals from being brought into schools. Under the ADA, however, these are not valid reasons. The case of Elhena Fry, a 12 year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy, who was barred from attending public school with her service dog, Wonder, is one such incident.

Special Considerations

There’s no doubt that service animals can immeasurably increase the quality of life for their owners, but bringing one into the school setting can be tricky, even after you have secured the approval of the school. Keep the following thoughts in mind as you consider embarking down this fulfilling, but often challenging, path:

  • Although schools are not permitted to request information about the service dog, such as rabies vaccination certificates, please consider providing as much documentation as possible in order to increase the sense of security among teachers and administrators.
  • It’s important to remember that the school is there to serve the needs of many, and schools may have valid concerns for the welfare of the other students. By addressing the school’s questions in a respectful manner, you will increase the likelihood that your own requests for your child will be met with less resistance.
  • Consider offering to have a meeting or to help organize an assembly to educate the staff and students about service dogs in schools.

Want to learn more about service dogs? The staff at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services can help by offering recommendations for local trainers and other service dog resources. Give us a call!

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