Dr. Megan Maxwell summarizes a recent paper in The Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, in which authors present a taxonomy of assistance animals to clarify a currently murky area of label confusion and misuse.

Parenti, L.P., Foreman, A., Meade, J. & Wirth, O. (2013). A revised taxonomy of assistance animals. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, 50, 745-756.

In this recent publication, Parenti and colleagues address an important area of confusion that can result in significant distress in communities nationwide. We’ve all heard stories in the press about angry handlers whose service dogs are turned away from public places without legal justification and angry business owners who argue that a dog on their establishment is not a certified service dog and should not be there. A laundry list of labels is in use for dogs providing various assistive or working functions – indeed, the authors open this paper with a sample list of no fewer than 20 of these (service dog, assistance dog, guide dog, seeing-eye dog, mobility assistance dog, working dog, therapy dog, emotional support dog, etc.)

In some cases, the labels are problematic because they don’t specify the function the animal serves. For example, ”guide dog” is historically used to describe a dog that provides assistance to an individual with visual impairment yet the term has also been used in the literature to refer to dogs working with individuals with other disabilities. Similarly, the term “therapy dog” has been used to identify dogs who visit nursing homes or hospitals to provide general enjoyment or comfort and also those who are used in the context of an explicit healthcare treatment plan (for example, by a physical therapist using the dog in a prescribed therapeutic way with a patient). In other cases, multiple labels are used to describe dogs that provide the same function – the authors report finding 20 different definitions and 12 different terms for animal-assisted therapy, for example.

Inconsistencies also exist in the vocabulary used to describe assistance animals in Federal and state statutes and regulations. The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) most recent characterization defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” By this definition, public access is mandated for dogs providing assistance to individuals with a variety of disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities, but explicitly excludes emotional support dogs. Even with this standardized definition at the Federal level, only one state directly cites ADA in it statute. Specific labels used to describe assistance animals are not otherwise consistent across states.

This confusion over the use of labels for and expectations of assistance animals in various roles will continue to impact those who require public access for their service animals, and Parenti et al. argue that the first step in addressing this problem is to provide clear definitions of various assistance animals based on objective, standardized criteria. The taxonomy these authors present is the first of its kind to pare down the plethora of labels that currently exist for assistance animals into just six categories. While the authors acknowledge that pets often serve important roles in families and can even have therapeutic benefit, they do not include “pet” in their taxonomy of assistance animals.

Each of the categories is characterized in terms of 1) whether the animal provides assistance related to an individual’s disability, 2) whether the assistance provided by the animal requires either a basic or an advanced level of skill, 3) whether the animal works with public service, military, or health professionals in implementation of a specific public service task or health-related treatment plan, 4) whether certification or training standards exist for this type of assistance animal, and 5) whether public access is legally protected by Federal or state statute.

I will provide a brief summary of each category here. For a complete table outlining each category and its differentiating factors, see Parenti et al. (2013).

Service Animal: Service animals have been trained to provide work or perform tasks related to an individual’s disability. Service animals are afforded public access under ADA and although training standards and certifications are recommended, none are legally recognized. Because these animals perform work or tasks for their handlers (e.g., opening doors, alerting handlers of an oncoming seizure), the level of skill required is advanced and training is required.

Public Service or Military Animal: These animals do not provide skills related to any disability. Instead, their skills, which are often complex and require special training, are related to public safety (e.g., bomb detection, suspect apprehension, cadaver location) or military service. Training and certification standards depend on the function of the animal and the organization utilizing its services. There are no explicit public access protections for these animals.

Therapy Animal: Therapy animals have been trained in either basic or advanced skills to assist a healthcare or allied healthcare professional within the scope of a therapeutic treatment plan. For example, a physical therapist, social worker, psychologist, or other professional might use a dog to accomplish treatment goals (e.g., a clinical psychologist might use a dog to create an environment of trust and acceptance during a consultation.) Therapy animals are not automatically afforded public access – this must be sought case by case. The minimum necessary skill requirements include obedience and socialization. Some training and certification standards are recommended (e.g., by Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International) but not legally mandated.

Visitation Animal: These dogs provide companionship and social interaction in nursing homes, schools, or hospitals. They are not typically granted public access, and have no special skill or training requirements beyond calm acceptance of handling and friendly social behavior.

Sporting, Recreational, or Agricultural Animal: These animals provide work related to competition, transportation, farm work, or recreation. Skills required may be basic or complex. These dogs do not provide services to an individual with a disability nor are they afforded public access protections.

Support Animal: These animals provide physical, psychiatric, or emotional support to individuals in need primarily in the home. They are afforded protections for access to private residences and public housing projects. Although there are no standards for training or certifying support animals, they must provide some support, comfort, or aid related to an individual’s disability, even if this support is in the form of their mere presence.

Access the entire article, including the taxonomy table referenced above, here: http://www.rehab.research.va.gov/jour/2013/506/pdf/parenti506.pdf

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