Professional paws on campus

September 27, 2012 | 11 a.m.

Bethel's first service dog brings a new understanding to the subject

News | Nicole Patricelli for The Clarion

Professional paws on campus

Emily Dyer embraces Bethel's first service dog. | Erin Gallagher

Some returning students may remember the joy that service dogs created on campus last spring when they were brought in to help relieve stress during finals week. But beyond their lovable faces and soft fur, what are service dogs really about? What is their job and how does having a service dog on campus this year affect Bethel?

Under the new regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” This can include serving an individual who has a wheelchair, visual impairment, hearing impairment, seizure disorder or mental illness, just to name a few. 

Not just any dog can be a service dog. Because of the specificity of the tasks these dogs are “hired” to do, they must go through rigorous training from the time they are puppies until they are qualified for certification. 

The Invisible Disabilities Association describes this training process in detail. It begins by socializing the dog by exposing it to a variety of different situations, people and environments so that the dog is prepared for anything. 

After the initial preparation, there is more specific training analyzing the dog’s temperament. In the final stage of training, public access programming, the dog is taught to ignore all distractions while on the job. The entire process can take anywhere from six months to a year.

After training, the dogs can’t be sent directly into the field. Because each dog is trained to work with a specific disability, they must be matched with their handler by personality and specialty. Schedule, activity and living environment are some of the items taken into consideration when choosing a dog.

The ADA clarifies where and when the service dog may be used on the job. They stipulate, “State and local governments, businesses and non-profit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all public areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.” While it seems simple enough, many public locations run into problems in being adaptable enough to cater to a service dog. 

The presence of Bethel’s first service dog has been a big success for the school according to Natalie Beazer, Director of Disability Services. 

She said there several situations to take into consideration when prepping Bethel for this type of responsibility. The school needed to work out the dog's license fees between the county and the city, discuss where the dog would go to the bathroom and form agreement policies between all parties involved. 

While it took some time to work out, it demonstrated the school’s ability to accommodate all kinds of situations, according to Beazer. “It has taken on a new dynamic and I think it makes Bethel a more welcoming environment for persons with a service dog,” she said. 

In regard to how everything is working out so far Beazer said, “Everything is in place and so far, no complaints.” She stressed there are still some etiquette pieces that the Bethel community as a whole should know.

First, always ask the handler for permission before approaching or touching the dog and respect the handler’s decision to say no. 

Second, always remember that the dog is an employee. Whenever it is wearing a harness, it is working, even when sleeping. Also, abstain from activities such as feeding or intentionally distracting the dog. If the dog is distracted, it will not be as alert and this can be potentially harmful. 

Third, be respectful of the handler and his or her boundaries. Do not ask about the reasons for a service animal; just honor their decision to be as open as they wish.

Those interested in more information can visit Disability Services in the Student Life Office. Bethel also offers a course with professor Ruth Nelson, Disabilities and Giftedness, which spends some time discussing service animals in detail. Nelson recommends checking out Helping Paws, which was named the “difference-maker organization” of September by KTIS.

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