Service animals are animals that assist people with disabilities. The animals are trained to perform tasks that their handlers cannot do for themselves. A service animal allows a person with a serious disability to be more independent and to live a fuller life.
It should be noted that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, animals that provide comfort or companionship for their owners but that are not trained to perform any specific tasks are not considered service animals under federal law. For instance, a person with depression or an anxiety disorder may have a pet and that pet may help the person relax, but that does not mean the pet is a service animal.
The most popular service animal is a dog. Everyone is familiar with the image of a blind person walking down the street with a guide dog, but dogs are used as service animals for people with many other disabilities, as well. Dogs let deaf people know when doorbells ring, when alarms go off and when babies cry. Dogs pick up items for people with physical disabilities, open doors for them and turn on lights. Dogs can be trained to perform services for people with mental disabilities, too.
With the exception of miniature horses in certain cases, dogs are the only service animals recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which gives disabled people that rely on service animals the right to take their dogs with them into most public places, even if pets are typically not allowed there. The reason dogs are preferred as service animals is because it has been proven that they can be trained well enough to do their jobs consistently and safely.
Some people advocate the use of miniature horses as an alternative to guide dogs for the blind. Miniature horses live longer than dogs, about 25 to 35 years, according to the Guide Horse Foundation. Since it takes quite a bit of training to prepare a service animal for duty, a longer lifespan is a significant benefit. Miniature horses may also be good service animals for visually impaired people that need help with balance, since the horses are able to bear more weight than dogs.
The National Federation of the Blind discourages the use of guide horses for the blind, however. Horses are more easily startled by loud noises or other unexpected things than dogs, despite extensive training. Miniature horses are too large to travel with their handlers by car or taxi, and they cannot curl up discretely under a chair or table as a service dog does in a restaurant.
Monkeys are sometimes placed in the home as service animals for those with severe physical disabilities, such as people with quadriplegia (paralysis from the neck down). Capuchin monkeys are commonly used, though other types of monkeys are sometimes used, as well. The ADA does not require businesses to allow disabled people with service monkeys to bring their monkeys into public places because monkeys are not domesticated the way dogs are and it is possible for a service monkey to injure someone. It may be more difficult to train monkeys to cope with the noise and commotion in public places, as well.
In the home, however, monkeys can provide many services other animals, including dogs, could not provide. They can open drinks, hold drinks for their handlers to sip, put CD’s on the stereo or DVD’s in the DVD player, scratch itchy noses, adjust blankets and pillows, and perform other tasks requiring manual dexterity. Of course, they provide companionship, as well.
While federal law does not allow people with disabilities to take other types of animals into public places that typically ban pets, people have claimed that they use numerous other species of animals as service animals and expressed outrage when told they could not bring their animals into public places like restaurants. Unusual animals claimed to be service animals have included snakes, parrots, goats, pigs, cats, hedgehogs, ferrets and rats. These animals cannot be adequately trained to behave appropriately in a public setting and in some cases pose risks to the public. Of course, they are also very limited in the tasks they can perform.