Service Dogs in Emergencies

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Service Dogs in Emergencies

Alice Frame, MA - Program Coordinator - MDHHS Disabilities Health

Emergency responders may encounter service animals in their work, so it’s important to understand what service animals are, the jobs they perform, and what their rights are in emergency situations.

What is a service animal?

First and foremost, a service animal is NOT the same as a pet. A service animal is an animal trained to do work or perform a service to benefit an individual with a disability. Types of service animals and the jobs they perform are:

  • Guide Dog/Seeing Eye Dogs: Assisting individuals with visual impairment in navigation or other tasks
  • Hearing/Signal Dogs: Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to noises
  • Mobility Service Dogs: Pulling a wheelchair or providing mobility support
  • SSigDOG (sensory or social signal dogs) – assisting a person with autism
  • Seizure-Response Dogs: Assisting someone during a seizure; some also detect and alert the user to an oncoming seizure
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs: Helping prevent or stop destructive or impulsive behaviors or detecting and responding to psychiatric episodes
  • Allergy Detection Dogs: detecting and altering individuals to allergens present in the area

A service animal is also different from a comfort or support animal. Those animals are not trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities.  They are there and to provide companionship, emotional support, or assist with depression and anxiety. Comfort and support animals are not protected by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and do not have the same rights as service animals. In some cases, individuals may also have service miniature horses. The same rules apply here as for service dogs, so long as space allows and the horse doesn’t compromise legitimate safety requirements.

Where are service animals allowed?

Individuals should be allowed to bring their service animals to any area of public or private businesses and facilities where people are allowed, if the animal is housebroken and under the user’s control. This can be done with a harness or leash, or through voice and/or signal commands. If a service animal is not under control, he is no longer protected by the ADA guidelines.

What does this mean for emergencies?

When at all possible, a service animal should be allowed to remain with the handler. Emergencies are stressful for everyone but can be even more so for an individual with a disability when separated from a service animal. Response staff cannot ask to see medical documentation or service animal certification, but can ask these two questions:

1.       Is the dog a service animal needed for a disability?

2.       What work is the dog trained to perform?

Ambulances: if space permits, a service animal should be allowed to accompany an individual with a disability in an ambulance. However, if there is limited space in the ambulance or the animal is behaving in a way that prevents responders from working on the patient, the staff should make arrangements to transport him separately to the same location as his owner. This can be done through local police, a secondary emergency responder, or other entity. Ideally, animal and user would arrive as close to the same time as possible.  Once arrived, the service animal should be returned back to their owner.

Hospitals and treatment centers: As a general rule, service animals must be allowed in any areas where the public and patients are allowed. These areas include patient rooms, clinics, exam rooms, cafeterias, and lounge space. However, it is appropriate to exclude service animals from areas that must remain sterile, such as operating rooms and burn units. Many hospitals and treatment centers have established service animal protocols.

Sheltering: Service animals must be allowed in any shelter or location being used for emergency sheltering. An individual with a disability cannot be separated from everyone else or moved to a separate shelter just because they have a service animal.

Ultimately, emergency responders should do their best to keep individuals together with their service animals whenever possible.  In some cases, this may prevent additional damage and harm in an emergency. If an individual with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) witnesses a bombing, the service dog could help minimize the severity of a psychiatric episode and prevent destructive behaviors.  If someone with a peanut allergy is taken to a shelter, his service animal could detect peanuts in the area and prevent that person from having an anaphylactic reaction.

If they must be separated for safety reasons or space restrictions, it is important to keep them close and reunite them as soon as possible. Service animals are accessibility supports, not pets. They can -and do – save lives.