Public Access. It’s a term that one will come across frequently, in efforts to learn about service dogs. Even major organizations like Assistance Dogs International and International Association of Assistance Dog Partners use the term. How can one argue that it’s not a significant subject, with support like that?
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “public access,” it refers to a service dog gaining entry, with a disabled handler, into a place of public accommodation, which is (most likely) not pet friendly. Public access training refers to the training of a service dog that is to prepare him for such an experience. In the context of this entry, I’ll primarily be referring to factors that affect or relate to owner trained service dog teams; this isn’t because owner trained teams are inherently lacking, in any way, but because the practices of the wide variety of service dog organizations are beyond the scope of this entry.
What Is “Public Access Training?”
Public access training is essential to a well trained, sound, socialized service dog in training’s progress. In its absence, we could not expect our dogs to perform the work and tasks we so greatly ask of them, under a myriad of circumstances. It entails intense, calculated socialization, basic obedience training, proofing of basic obedience, fostering a relationship of teamwork and bonding. These are all elements that comprise the recipe for a successful service dog.
This training prepares a service dog in training for experiences similar to that which he will likely be faced with, as a working service dog. It’s a combination of building proficiency in appropriate public behavior and basic manners.
As referenced earlier, many major organizations rely on the term, “Public Access.” When you think about it, the training is primarily for the dog and well-informed service dog handlers know that it is not the service dog who has the right to gain access to public places, but rather a federally protected right that applies to the disabled service dog handler. Because of this, I consider the term “Public access training,” in most contexts, to be a misnomer. A more appropriate term, often used in the final stages of training, as a partnership, with an organization that trains service dogs themselves, is “team training.”
Ultimately, when the term “public access training,” is used, there will be an evaluation of the dog’s skills to follow. This is referred to as a “public access test.”(quite often referred to as PAT) In fact, many owner trained teams tailor their training regiment specifically to meet the standards of the public access test that they plan on taking. Some service dog organizations even endorse this approach toward training. This is a huge mistake!
While public access tests are a good benchmark to evaluate a service dog in training’s progress -or even a service dog’s- , similar to the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Test, which helps evaluate a dog’s manners, obedience and socialization, it does not make or break a dog’s ability to work as a service dog. However, it is treated as if it should. This does a disservice to both members of the team. Passing a public access test does not mean that a service dog is prepared to take on the world. In fact, many PATs are so basic that the standards hardly exceed what should be expected of a pet dog- not a dog who will be at his handler’s side for up to 10 years to follow, wherever that may be and whatever it may entail.
The Scope of Assessment
For purposes of painting an accurate picture, I’ll copy and paste an example of a public access test that is encouraged and sometimes regulated, by a major service dog organization. (Scroll down to “END QUOTE” to skip reading this standard for certification.)
This test is here as information only. This test was designed to be administered by professional Assistance Dog Trainers.
Administering this test by non members of Assistance Dogs International is not authorized by Assistance Dogs International nor would completion of this test be considered certification by Assistance Dogs International.
Assistance Dogs International accepts no liability for use of this test.
Copyright Assistance Dogs International, Inc. 1997
ASSISTANCE DOG PUBLIC ACCESS CERTIFICATION TEST
NAME OF DOG AND RECIPIENT: ________________________________
NAME OF TESTER: _____________________________________________
DATE OF TEST: _____________ DATE OF PLACEMENT: _____________
TESTED ON (PLEASE CIRCLE ONE): PLACEMENT FOLLOW-UP
- PURPOSE: The purpose of this Public Access Test is to ensure that dogs who have public access are stable, well-behaved, and unobtrusive to the public. It is to ensure that the client has control over the dog and the team is not a public hazard. This test is NOT intended as a substitute for the skill/task test that should be given by the program. It is to be used in addition to those skill/task tests. It is expected that the test will be adhered to as closely as possible. If modifications are necessary, they should be noted in the space provided at the end of the test.
- DISMISSAL: Any dog that displays any aggressive behavior (growling, biting, raising hackles, showing teeth, etc.) will be eliminated from the test. Any dog that eliminates in a building or shows uncontrollable behavior will be eliminated from the test.
- BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line of this test is that the dog demonstrates that he/she is safe to be in public and that the person demonstrates that he/she has control of the dog at all times.
- TESTING EQUIPMENT: All testing shall be done with equipment appropriate to the needs and abilities of the team. All dogs shall be on-lead at all times except in the vehicle at which time it is optional.
- This test is to take place in a public setting such as a mall where there are a lot of people and natural distractions. The individual will handle the dog and can use any reasonable/humane equipment necessary to ensure his/her control over the dog.
- The evaluator will explain the test thoroughly before the actual testing, during which he/she will follow discreetly to observe when not directly interacting with the individual on a test related matter. The only things an evaluator needs are a clip board, an assistant, another dog, a plate with food, and access to a shopping cart.
- COMMANDS: Commands may be given to the dog In either hand signals or verbal signals or both.
- CONTROLLED UNLOAD OUT OF VEHICLE: After a suitable place has been found, the individual will unload the dog and any necessary equipment (wheelchair, walker, crutches, etc.) out of the vehicle. The dog must wait until released before coming out of the vehicle. Once outside, it must wait quietly unless otherwise instructed by the Individual. The dog may not run around, be off lead, or ignore commands given by the individual. Once the team is out of the vehicle and settled, the assistant should walk past with another dog. they should walk within six (6) feet of the team. The Assistance Dog must remain calm and under control, not pulling or trying to get to the other dog.
The emphasis on this is that the Assistance Dog remain unobtrusive and is unloaded in the safest manner possible for everyone.
- APPROACHING THE BUILDING: After unloading, the team must maneuver through the parking lot to approach the building. The dog must stay in a relative heel position and may not forge ahead or lag behind. The dog must not display a fear of cars or traffic noises and must display a relaxed attitude. When the individual stops for any reason, the dog must stop also.
- CONTROLLED ENTRY THROUGH A DOORWAY: Once at the doors of the building, the individual may enter however he/she chooses to negotiate the entry safely. Upon entering the building; however, the dog may not wander off or solicit attention from the public. The dog should wait quietly until the team is fully inside then should calmly walk beside the individual. The dog must not pull or strain against the lead or try to push its way past the individual but must wait patiently while entry is completed.
- HEELING THROUGH THE BUILDING: Once inside the building, the individual and the dog must walk through the area in a controlled manner. The dog should always be within touching distance where applicable or no greater than a foot away from the individual. The dog should not solicit public attention or strain against the lead (except in cases where the dog may be pulling the individual’s wheelchair). The dog must readily adjust to speed changes, turn corners promptly, and travel through a crowded area without interacting with the public. In tight quarters, the dog must be able to get out of the way of obstacles and not destroy merchandise by knocking it over or by playing with it.
- SIX FOOT RECALL ON LEAD: A large, open area should be found for the six foot recall. Once found, the individual will perform a six foot recall with the dog remaining on lead. The individual will sit the dog, leave it, travel six feet, then turn and call the dog to him/her. The dog should respond promptly and not stop to solicit attention from the public or ignore the command. The dog should come close enough to the individual to be readily touched. For Guide Dogs, they must actually touch the person to indicate location. The recall should be smooth and deliberate without the dog trudging to the individual or taking any detours along the way.
- SITS ON COMMAND: The team will be asked to demonstrate the Individual’s ability to have the dog sit three different times. The dog must respond promptly each time with no more than two commands. There should not be any extraordinary gestures on the part of the people approaching the dog. Normal, reasonable behavior on the part of the people is expected.
The first sit will be next to a plate of food placed upon the ground. The dog must not attempt to eat or sniff the food. The individual may correct the dog verbally or physically away from the food, but then the dog must maintain a sit while ignoring the food. The dog should not be taunted or teased with the food. This situation should be made as realistic as possible.
The second sit will be executed, and the assistant with a shopping cart will approach within three feet of the dog and continue on past. The dog should maintain the sit and not show any fear of the shopping cart. If the dog starts to move, the individual may correct the dog to maintain the sit.
The last sit will be a sit with a stay as a person walks up behind the team, talks to the person and then pets the dog. The dog must hold position. The dog may not break the stay to solicit attention. The individual may repeat the stay command along with reasonable physical corrections.
- DOWNS ON COMMAND: The down exercises will be performed in the same sequence as the sits with the same basic stipulations. The first down will be at a table where food will be dropped on the floor. The dog should not break the down to go for the food or sniff at the food. The individual may give verbal and physical corrections to maintain the down. There should not be any extraordinary gestures on the part of the people approaching the dog. Normal, reasonable behavior from the people is expected.
The second down will be executed, and then an adult and child should approach the dog. The dog should maintain the down and not solicit attention. If the child pets the dog, the dog must behave appropriately and not break the stay. The individual may give verbal and physical corrections if the dog begins to break the stay.
- NOISE DISTRACTION: The team will be heeling along and the tester will drop a clipboard to the ground behind the team. The dog may acknowledge the noise, but may not in any way show aggression or fear. A normal startle reaction Is fine–the dog may jump and or turn–but the dog should quickly recover and continue along on the heel. The dog should not become aggressive, begin shaking, etc.
- RESTAURANT: The team and tester should enter a restaurant and be seated at a table. The dog should go under the table or, if size prevents that, stay close by the individual. The dog must sit or lie down and may move a bit for comfort during the meal, but should not be up and down a lot or need a lot of correction or reminding. This would be a logical place to do the food drop during a down. (See #7)
- OFF LEAD: Sometime during the test, where appropriate, the person will be instructed to drop the leash while moving so it is apparent to the dog. The individual must show the ability to maintain control of the dog and get the leash back in its appropriate position. this exercise will vary greatly depending on the person’s disabilities. The main concern is that the dog be aware that the leash is dropped and that the person Is able to maintain control of the dog and get the leash back into proper position.
- CONTROLLED UNIT: The team will leave the building in a similar manner to entering, with safety and control being of prime importance. The team will proceed across the parking lot and back to the vehicle. The dog must be in appropriate heel position and not display any fear of vehicle or traffic sounds.
- CONTROLLED LOAD into VEHICLE: The individual will load the dog into the vehicle, with either entering first. The dog must not wander around the parking lot but must wait patiently for instructions. Emphasis is on safety and control.
Scoring Factors of the Public Access Certification Test
M= Most of the time (more than half of time)
S= Some of the time (half or less of the time)
- CONTROLLED UNLOAD OUT OF VEHICLEDog did not try to leave vehicle until given release command.
- __YES* __NO The dog waited in the vehicle until released.*
- ___YES ___NO The dog waited outside the vehicle under control.
- ___YES ___NO The dog remained under control while another dog was walked past.
- APPROACHING THE BUILDINGRelative heel position, not straining or forging.
- __A __M __S __N The dog stayed in relative heel position.
- ___YES* __NO The dog was calm around traffic.*
- __A __M __S __N The dog stopped when the individual came to a halt.
- CONTROLLED ENTRY THROUGH A DOORWAY
- ___YES* __NO The dog waited quietly at the door until commanded to enter.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog waited on the inside until able to return to heel position.*
- HEELING THROUGH THE BUILDING
- __A __M __S __N The dog was within the prescribed distance of the individual.
- __A __M __S __N The dog ignored the public, remaining focused on the individual.
- __A __M __S __N The dog readily adjusted to speed changes.
- __A __M __S __N The dog readily turned corners–did not have to be tugged or jerked to change direction.
- __A __M __S __N The dog readily maneuvered through tight quarters.
- SIX FOOT RECALL ON LEAD
- ___YES* __NO The dog responded readily to the recall command–did not stray away, seek attention from others, or trudge slowly.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog remained under control and focused on the individual.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog came within the prescribed distance of the individual.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog came directly to the individual.*
- SITS ON COMMAND
- __A __M __S __N The dog responded promptly to the command to sit.
- ___YES* __NO The dog remained under control around food–not trying to get food and not needing repeated corrections.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog remained composed while the shopping cart passed–did not shy away, show signs of fear, etc. shopping cart should be pushed normally and reasonable, not dramatically.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog maintained a sit-stay while being petted by a stranger.*
- DOWNS ON COMMAND
- __A __M __S __N The dog responded promptly to the command to down.
- ___YES* __NO The dog remained under control around the food–not trying to get food and not needing repeated corrections.*
- ___YES ___NO The dog remained in control while the child approached–child should not taunt dog or be overly dramatic.
- NOISE DISTRACTIONSIf the dog jumps, turns, or shows a quick startle type reaction, that is fine. The dog should not show fear, aggression, or continue to be affected by the noise.
- ___YES* __NO The dog remained composed during the noise distraction.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog is unobtrusive and out of the way of patrons and employees as much as possible.*
- ___YES* __NO The dog maintained proper behavior, ignoring food and being quiet.*
- OFF LEAD
- ___YES* __NO When told to drop the leash, the team maintained control and the individual got the leash back in position.*
- DOG TAKEN BY ANOTHER PERSONTo show that the dog can be handled by another person without aggression or excessive stress or whining, someone else will take the dog’s leash and passively hold the dog (not giving any commands) while the dog’s partner moves 20′ away.
- ___YES ___NO Another person can take the dog’s leash and the dog’s partner can move away without aggression or undue stress on the part of the dog.
- CONTROLLED EXIT
- __A __M __S __N The dog stayed in relative heel position.
- ___YES* __NO The dog was calm around traffic.*
- __A __M __S __N The dog stopped when the individual came to a halt.
- CONTROLLED LOAD INTO VEHICLE
- ___YES ___NO The dog waited until commanded to enter the vehicle.
- ___YES ___NO The dog readily entered the vehicle upon command.
- TEAM RELATIONSHIP
- __A __M __S __N When the dog did well, the person praised the dog.
- __A __M __S __N The dog is relaxed, confident, and friendly.
- __A __M __S __N The person kept the dog under control.
The team must score all ‘Always’ or’ Most of the time’ responses on the A-M-S-N parts of the test.
The team must score at least 80% “yes” answers on the “yes” “no” portion of the test
All questions marked by an asterisk must be answered by a “YES” response.
Were there any unique situations that made any portion of this test not applicable?
Upon first impression, this public access test does appear to be rather thorough. However, as I noted before, I do not believe it is representative of real life situations that a team will find themselves in. Of course, there are few ways to determine how a potential service dog will react in the more extreme situations. But they do happen! Unsupervised children get on service dogs and ride them. Individuals who are terrified of dogs may react aggressively toward the team, as a knee jerk (sometimes literally) reaction. Service dogs will inevitably become spooked by something, at some point during their career. Access challenges can become hostile and the police may be involved. A team may encounter an aggressive dog, rather than one who is under control. A handler may lose consciousness and require medical treatment, during which time a service dog must allow first responders to approach and assist the handler. Handling a service dog is not exempt from Murphy’s Law.
What’s wrong with this picture? Using an inadequate standard sets a bad precedent and ultimately sets the individual team, as well as the reputation of service dogs, as a whole, for failure. We shouldn’t be assessing dogs based on unrealistic, ideal circumstances.
PATs Are Not Gospel
Not only are public access tests used as a manner of assessing a dog’s potential to work in public, but, as you may have noticed by reading ADI’s public access test, passing it is a prerequisite for certification with the organization. However, there is no required standardized form of certification in the United States.
Despite what would be an appropriate nature of a PAT: An assessment to gauge where the dog is in his training, and nothing more, organizations like ADI and others encourage the practice of using the PAT -whichever one the particular organization has either developed for themselves or prefers- as a means of determining whether a dog can transition from service dog in training to a service dog. Using an inadequate system of evaluation to arrive at one of the most significant conclusions in a team’s partnership reflects skewed perceptions of reality.
One organization, in particular, comes to mind, as I think of the mentality that endorses the thinking behind PATs reflecting a service dog in training’s readiness for full time work as a service dog. When I was in the early stages of getting involved with the service dog community and lifestyle, I was under the impression that once Bradley could pass a public access test, it would mean that he would then “graduate” from “in training” to “service dog,” status. That was likely neither true of Bradley nor many other service dogs in training; it’s entirely possible for a service dog to pass a PAT and still not be ready for full service dog work, because of the inadequacy of the standards.
Changing Our Standards
The service dog community is desperate for higher standards. I don’t believe that nationally recognized certification is the answer but I also believe that public access tests are detrimental to striving toward realistic yet high standards. Novice handlers must be educated about how they can determine when their service dogs in training are ready to be considered service dogs. Simply manifesting the ability to pass a public access test is not the answer. There’s nothing wrong with using it as one tool, among a combination of periodically evaluating a dog’s strengths and weaknesses. However, there are plenty of other options in our toolbox of assessing our service dogs in training, which, combined, are far more reliable and give us more information that we can use to our benefit. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture. If a dog in training is ready to transition to a new “status” (remember- training never ends!) he’ll tell you. If he’s not ready, he’ll tell you and it’s your responsibility to listen.