Assistance from Service Dogs for People with Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2013

We are currently in the midst of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2013 (Feb 24-March 2nd). The message NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) is promoting is, “Everyone knows someone.” The unfortunate reality is that this holds true with far more prevalence than most people are aware; According to NEDA, “30 Million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime.” Don’t think you know someone with an eating disorder? If you know me, you do. I’ve lived with an eating disorder for the past ten years.

In honor of ‘NEDA Week 2013,” I’d like to dedicate this post to exploring the potential for assistance that service dogs may offer to those struggling with eating disorders.


A Brief Review of the Role of Service Dogs
Service dogs are dogs who receive individual training to do work or perform tasks which mitigate their handlers’ unique disabilities. It’s safe to say that, in most cases, the exact nature of the assistance a service dog offers is distinct from the manner in which a service dog assists another individual with the same or a similar disability.

In defining the role of a service dog, it’s also necessary to understand what is meant by the term, “disability.” A disability is a condition that affects an individual in a manner that significantly affects or limits one or more major life activity.

A service dog is *not* a dog whose sole purpose is to provide comfort through companionship, whether that means a person is less depressed because of the therapeutic benefit of having a pet dog or a person feels safer having a pet dog whose presence may serve as a potential crime deterrent.

Two factors must be simultaneously present for a dog to be considered a service dog: A person with a life-limiting disability and a dog who has been individually trained to mitigate the manifestation of that person’s disability.

Alternative Uses of Dogs to Benefit Those with Psychiatric Disorders
There are two additional roles dogs may play in the lives of people with medical conditions or psychiatric disorders. These additional roles, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) are often confused with service dogs but it’s crucial to understand the differences between the roles. Later on, I will reference potential uses of ESA’s to benefit those who live with eating disorders. If you’d like to learn more about the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals, visit the page on the subject at the Please Don’t Pet Me website.

An emotional support animal does not need to be a dog- although dogs will be the focus of this post. Emotional support animals, unlike service dogs, do not need to undergo any individualized training to mitigate their owners’ disabilities. The primary role of an emotional support animal is to provide a therapeutic benefit through companionship and the inherent comfort of having a dog around. They are permitted to live in housing that prohibits pets, as a reasonable accommodation to a person with a disability and may travel in cabin with their owners during air travel, per the discretion of their owners’ medical and mental health care providers. People with disabilities do not have the right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to be accompanied by ESAs in places of public accommodation, as they do with service dogs.

Physical Health Implications of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are psychiatric in nature and have tremendous ramifications to sufferer’s physical health. Detrimental consequences are both short term and long term. Each type of eating disorder affects individuals differently but any eating disorder can carry a risk of mortality; this can be the result of heart failure caused by electrolyte imbalance or low blood pressure, kidney failure, caused by dehydration and esophageal rupture. Other negative health implications associated with eating disorders pose a threat of serious and lasting harm to those affected.

Comorbidity of additional psychiatric disorders among those diagnosed with eating disorders is prevalent, with some of the most common comorbid conditions including: Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Linking Effects with the Benefits of Assistance from a Service Dog
It is not uncommon for service dogs to have ‘job descriptions’ that involve behaviors that can be the difference between life and death for their handlers on a regular basis. While not every individual who lives with an eating disorder is facing imminent risk of death on a day to day basis, the effects of some eating disorder behaviors can inch sufferers closer to a point at which that may change, as the eating disorder behavior becomes more extreme or cumulative effects of ongoing behaviors begin to affect the individual.

Independent of life-threatening or long term effects, some eating disorder behaviors can result in undesirable and unsafe short term effects, like fatigue, dizziness, headaches and syncope.

Keeping the degree to which they affect a person in mind, all of the aforementioned effects of behaviors associated with eating disorders have the potential to interfere with one or more major life activity, rendering an individual disabled. With the right forethought, it is certainly possible for an affected individual to benefit from the assistance of an individually trained service dog.


How Can Service Dogs Help Those with Eating Disorders?
Taking into consideration that the individual is affected by his or her eating disorder to a degree at which it meets the criteria to be considered a disabling condition, it’s important to remember that each disability manifests itself uniquely from one person to the next. Eating disorders are no exception. I’ll discuss just a few ways a dog can be individually trained to mitigate the disabling nature of various eating disorders. Most will be familiar to those who are familiar with the types of behaviors psychiatric service dogs assist people with various conditions and disorders that are not related to eating disorders.

  • Preventing and Interrupting Maladaptive (Eating Disorder) Behaviors
    With some creativity, there is virtually no limit to the manners in which a service dog can be trained to perform behaviors that are incompatible with something the handler struggles with resisting strong urges in which to engage. In regard to eating disorders, this can include anything from ritualistic eating (or exercise) habits to purging after eating. One example of how a service dog may prevent his handler from engaging in purging behavior may be to physically interrupt the individual’s efforts toward purging by doing something like persistent pawing at the handler or pawing at the door if the handler has shut the dog out of the room. The dog may also be trained to alert members of the handler’s family to the handler’s behavior by barking or using another trained cue to communicate with others who are actively supportive of the handler’s recovery. A service dog may also be trained to perform similar behaviors to interrupt a binge eating episode.
  • Reminding the handler to perform important daily tasks
    Service dogs can be trained to remind their handlers when it’s time for something important to happen. In the case of eating disorder behaviors, this may be something like a reminder to eat a meal or a snack. An effective way to condition a dog to remind the handler to do something at the same time every day is to create a daily routine that involves doing something the dog will look forward to and come to expect, each day at the same time. The service dog will need to be trained to perform a specific behavior that will serve as the reminder, in order to make the ‘payoff’ happen. The payoff can be something like a high value treat, a meal, a walk, a game of fetch- anything the dog loves. Ultimately, what will be most important is that the dog is persistent in his reminding behavior. It should be something that the handler cannot easily ignore.
  • Medical Alert and/or Response
    There are a wide variety of medical conditions for which service dogs can and often are trained to perform alerting and response behaviors for. Alerts are behaviors the dog performs before the onset of a medical crisis (or before the handler is aware of it), to warn the handler that it is coming. This gives the handler the opportunity to take appropriate action to either prevent the medical crisis or get into a safe situation in which to experience the oncoming crisis. Responses are behaviors that a service dog is trained to perform after a medical crisis has started to take place. A response can be anything from keeping the handler safe while the crisis takes place to alerting someone else that the handler is in need of assistance. Because some individuals with eating disorders experience effects like syncope (fainting), a service dog who is trained to detect a syncope episode and alert the handler to it can be tremendously helpful. If the dog isn’t capable of detecting it before it occurs, and many are not, the dog can be trained to respond by doing something like seeking out another person for help.
  • Providing Trained Support During Times of Distress
    This type of assistance is typical of most service dogs who are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities. The types of tasks service dogs may perform to be of such assistance vary significantly from one team to another. Some handlers can benefit from a service dog providing Deep Pressure Therapy, when anxiety levels rise. In the case of an eating disorder, it’s not at all uncommon for heightened anxiety to be a major factor in the individual’s experiences. This can be of particular prominence directly before, during and immediately after meals. Service dogs can be trained to perform any combination of behaviors to alleviate their handlers’ distress.

Of paramount importance to stress is that, similar to any other use of a service dog, this assistance is never to replace or conflict with effective medical treatment. The role of a service dog in the life of an individual with an eating disorder must be one that promotes steps toward the individual’s recovery- not providing assistance in a manner that supports the destructive nature of life with eating disorder behaviors. This unique partnership should allow the handler to build mastery in effective coping behaviors and ongoing progress, on the road to recovery.

Techniques for Using Pet Dogs or Emotional Support Animals to Manage Eating Disorder Behaviors

-Use training sessions to treat yourself along with your dog: Set up your training environment so you can enjoy a snack while rewarding your dog for his work. Each time your dog earns a reward to reinforce a behavior, treat your dog and be sure to take a bite of your chosen snack immediately after. (Make sure that you are not touching food or treats intended for dogs with the same hand you’re handling your own food with, to avoid contamination. Using eating utensils for your own food is recommended.)

– Eat with your dog: Schedule meals like breakfast and dinner at the same time you feed your dog.

This is a picture of Bradley holding his leash, taken in May 2009.

– Walk away from purging: Plan the longer walks of the day with your dog for times after you eat. Not only will you be physically distancing yourself from your typical purging environment, but you will also be putting space between the time you consume your meal and the window of time you are most likely to purge. Any anxiety about purging is likely to subside, the longer you’re out on the walk. Make sure to make it a restorative, peaceful bonding experience for you and your dog.

IMG_2522– Incorporate your dog’s exercise into your own exercise routine: Keeping your dog’s physical welfare in mind, most young, healthy dogs will happily become your outdoor workout buddy! Just as people need to train before they can become regular joggers or runners, dogs require conditioning, too. Make sure not to push your dog too hard, too fast. Once your dog is walking, hiking, jogging, biking, swimming or participating in other recreational activities with you, you can develop a balanced routine that keeps your dog’s happiness and safety in the forefront of your mind, while establishing healthy habits for yourself. (If it’s enough exercise for your active dog, it’s certainly adequate activity for most people.)

– Learn about nutrition: There’s a wealth of information available online about canine nutrition. Admittedly, some sources of information conflict with others, but there is a lot to learn. You’ll be putting yourself in a position to learn more about how to optimally fuel your dog’s body to provide him with the opportunity to be in prime health. Armed with your newfound knowledge and understanding of nourishing your dog, do yourself the same favor. Meet with a nutritionist and do your own research about what makes your body tick. Knowledge is power.

Bradley and I embracing with a colorful Autumn scene in the background

– Treat yourself as compassionately as you treat your dog: You would not want your dog to be without what he needs to be healthy and happy and he certainly wants you to show the same care to yourself. Balance is healthy for both of you and neither of you will judge the other for your imperfections.

Take Note
In the presence of any disability, the decision to use a service dog as a means of mitigating the manner in which an individual is affected is a very personal one. While the assistance a service dog can provide is invaluable, embarking on such a partnership is a tremendous commitment and responsibility. The commitment and responsibility is not only to the service dog who will be one’s partner for upwards of a decade, in some cases, but also a commitment to take care of oneself by doing whatever an individual and his or her medical treatment providers deem appropriate to best manage the symptoms of the medical condition. A service dog is neither a cure nor a band aid, but rather a partner with unwavering dedication to performing the job for which he was trained.

It’s important to emphasize that a diagnosis is not synonymous with a disability. While two people may receive the same diagnosis, that doesn’t mean they are both affected by the criteria an individual must meet to receive such a diagnosis in the same manner. The manifestation of a diagnosis for one person may be significantly life-limiting, while the other is able to manage symptoms and care for himself or herself independently. This is not exclusive to eating disorders; it is applicable to any medical condition, whether it is psychiatric, neurological or physical in nature. (On the other hand, one need not receive an official diagnosis to be affected by symptoms to a degree which renders the person disabled.)

Finally, upon researching the manner in which one may benefit from the assistance of a service dog, it will become clear that not all forms of service dog jobs are created equally under the law. Some tasks or work mitigate a disability to such an extent that a court of law would support the use of a service dog to perform individual tasks or work independent of additional trained tasks or work, while other trained behaviors may be helpful in allowing an individual to maintain safety and independence, yet they may not play a role significant enough for a dog to legally be considered a service dog.

Some of the concepts suggested above may not be strong enough ‘stand-alone’ tasks, yet a dog who is trained to perform a combination of them will make a greater impact on the disabled person’s independence. I recommend reading some task lists, particularly those outlined for psychiatric service dogs, on IAADP’s (International Association of Assistance Dog Partners) website, to learn more about ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ tasks or behaviors, when considering whether such skills would result in a dog being considered a service dog.

Comorbidity Of Psychiatric Conditions with Eating Disorders

As I mentioned above, there is a high occurrence of comorbidity of additional psychiatric conditions, among patients with eating disorders. Each of the most commonly occurring comorbid conditions (Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders) has the potential affect an individual to such a degree that he or she may be disabled. Combining the effects of such conditions with those of eating disorders can have devastating consequences on the lives of those who are affected by them. The assistance provided by psychiatric service dogs could prove to be invaluable and life-changing, in such cases.

A Humbling Shaping Exercise

I’m so excited to announce that Bradley and I started our first canine sport class a little over a week ago.  It’s an agility foundations class.  Last night was our second class and we still have yet to lay eyes on actual agility equipment.  I had expected our instructor to take things slowly with all of us agility newbies.  However, I didn’t quite expect to take such small, calculated steps.  I’ve gotta say, I’m incredibly impressed with how the class is being operated so far.  I’m glad that we weren’t blindly thrown into the world of weave poles, A frames, jumps, dog walks, tires, etc.  This class is truly catered to the novice agility enthusiast with plans to compete in the future, which describes me to a ‘T’.

My experience with group classes is pretty limited.    Unfortunately, that limited experience has not, up until this point, exposed me to knowledge or skills that I didn’t already have a firm grasp on, so I felt like both Bradley and I were bored and wasting our time.  I’m very happy to say that is not the case with this class.  Heavy emphasis is being placed on teaching handlers the basics of clicker training and shaping.  Music to my ears!

Befitting to a foundations class, we are truly working from the ground up.  When I say the skills we’re learning and practicing are basic, I mean it.  But they are laying the foundation for effective handling once we’re ready to run an agility course.

Here’s a short video of a simple turn that took some time for us to get used to manipulating.  As easy as it looks, the footwork directly conflicts with the manner in which we normally take turns, so we got off to an awkward start.

We’ve been totally at home with the various exercises that have been presented to us, including shaping some new, simple behaviors, shaping interaction with various objects, demonstrating basic obedience skills and homework like working on loading the clicker and teaching some new behaviors, like bow, ‘sit pretty,’ turning in alternate directions and our own behavior shaping ideas.

Our homework this week is to teach our dogs a new behavior, using shaping.  I was having a hard time deciding on what to teach Bradley.  I wanted to come up with something interesting.  I was stuck though, so I decided to work on solidifying Bradley’s proficiency at the tricks we’ve started to work on.  With all the the training I’ve done with Bradley, there are very, very few parlor tricks that Bradley knows.  Almost everything I’ve taught him has a practical purpose.  I decided to let go of that, in this context, to simply allow us to get what we’re supposed to get out of the assignment- mastery building, not task training.

Humbled By Shaping
Bradley is a quick learner and a willing worker.  He excels at learning through clicker training and has learned the majority of service dog tasks that he knows through clicker training.  As I set out to work on our assignment to work on a new behavior, this evening, I took our overwhelming success rate for granted and was taken aback when we hit a speed bump.

The task: Roll over.
Probably second to giving paw, rolling over is one of the most common tricks that dog lovers tend to just assume a dog knows how to perform. It’s such a common behavior for a dog to learn, it’s almost as if people are under the impression that dogs are born knowing how to perform the trick on cue.  I can’t even count the number of dogs I’ve taught to roll over; while I have always used luring, I haven’t always utilized the method of shaping.  I set out to teach Bradley how to roll over, I fell back on the familiar tool of luring with a treat.  Already in high drive mode from earlier in the training session, Bradley had other things in mind, besides following the lure.

He was ecstatic.  True to his die-hard-clicker-training-loving soul, he was throwing off every single behavior he could think of that we had worked on recently.  Offered behaviors are my favorite part of clicker training.  They’re also Bradley’s favorite part.  At this point, however, he was way ahead of himself!  He was offering behaviors from lying on his side, bowing, twirling in circles- to everything in between.  Adorable as it was, I noticed a feeling creeping up that should never be a welcome guest in the context of clicker training: frustration.

Fortunately, I had mindfulness on my side and was able to gently let go of the approaching frustration, take a step back and evaluate how to proceed so as not to communicate any frustration to Bradley.  I knew that if frustration was present, the training session would have to end.

I was able to identify the first roadblock that we were experiencing; Bradley was not paying attention to the intended lure.  It wasn’t a matter of refusing food because of stress.  He was simply going a million miles per hour and leaving me, kibble in hand, in the dust.  After identifying that problem, I was able to set him up for success in following the lure and then had the opportunity to mark and reinforce that piece of the behavior.  He was able to reel himself in, slow down, and keep his eye on the prize.

Once he was consistently following the lure, I still had to take baby steps.  We had a major success, when he finally stopped doing entirely incompatible behaviors to rolling over, like offering a lie on his opposite side.  From that point on, I was able to mark every little step in the right direction, as he brought his head toward the lure, putting himself in a more compatible position for rolling over.  He got jackpots for rolling onto a hip or a shoulder and got the biggest, final jackpot reward for rolling all the way over.

Setting out to accomplish this task, I never would have thought that it would have taken so much effort and calculation to get Bradley to the point at which we concluded the session.  From a learning and bonding perspective, I can wholeheartedly affirm that I’d rather it have gone the way it did than have achieved immediate, almost thoughtless success.

Training sessions aren’t only for the dogs 🙂

Giving Credit Where It’s Deserved

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.

Bradley practices riding the escalator, which is part of some public access evaluations.

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!

Bradley demonstrates a very basic “skill” while in training: Riding an elevator. This is on many PATs.

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


NAME OF DOG AND RECIPIENT: ________________________________

NAME OF TESTER: _____________________________________________

DATE OF TEST: _____________ DATE OF PLACEMENT: _____________


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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)
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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

A= Always
M= Most of the time (more than half of time)
S= Some of the time (half or less of the time)
N= Never

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
    ___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.*
    __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.
    ___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.*
    __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.*
    __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.
  8. 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.*
  10. OFF LEAD
    ___YES* __NO When told to drop the leash, the team maintained control and the individual got the leash back in position.*
  11. 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.
    __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.
    ___YES ___NO The dog waited until commanded to enter the vehicle.
    ___YES ___NO The dog readily entered the vehicle upon command.
    __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?


A service dog should be able to work in all types of environments, regardless of where one expects to spend most of her time. Life circumstances can change beyond our control.

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

Bradley maintains his composure, in the presence of some very excited Lemurs. Reactions to non-domestic animals should be considered, when assessing where a service dog is, in his training.

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.

Is your service dog in training prepared to accompany you in the event of a medical emergency?

Bradley reacted perfectly to a squirrel who literally almost jumped on top of him when he was guiding. He took the surprising experience in stride.

Inquiries Welcome!

I won’t be bold enough to assume many people read this blog, without me promoting specific posts, but I hope this reaches enough people- especially those who are interested in any of the topics I’ve written about.

I’m inviting everyone to submit requests or suggestions for specific subject matter to be discussed.  You can ask whatever questions you’d like, whether they’re general or personal.  I’ve already gotten some fantastic suggestions and questions in response to my post about this on Facebook.

Thanks for reading! (Please pass this on, to anyone you think may be interested!)

Owner Training a Service Dog: Expectations vs. Reality

The Novice’s Expectations vs. Reality of Owner Training a Service Dog

Adequate Resources for Learning About Training and Handling

Expectation: The Internet

Reality: Experienced Mentors

Announcing Your Endeavor to Family and Friends

Expectation: Support

Reality: “But there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Choosing Your Service Dog Candidate

Expectation: The right one will easy to pick, with an aura around him, halo, flashing neon sign or something to that effect, indicating that he’s “The One.”

Reality: There are a lot of dogs available and very few have what it takes.

Many “career changed” service dogs in training go on to do other jobs, that they are more suited for, like bomb sniffing dogs.

Bringing Your Puppy Home

Expectation: Puppy will be a perfect fit into your lifestyle and you will bond immediately

Reality: Puppy needs to learn house manners

Beginning The Training Process

Expectation: Bringing a well-behaved, young puppy to the store with you as soon as you bring him home

Reality: Basic obedience doesn’t come naturally

Finally Bringing Your Service Dog In Training Into Public

Expectation: A well-mannered pup

Reality: A lot of effort on your part to make progress

Amount of Time It Takes To Graduate Your Dog From “In Training” Status to “Service Dog”

Expectation: Within a year

Reality: About 2 Years

It took about two years for Bradley to transition from “in training” to my standards of “service dog” status.

Having A Full Time Service Dog

Expectation: Support from family, friends and society


My best friend’s brother visits with Bradley at her wedding.

Reality: Some Will Refuse To Accept Your Service Dog Partnership

How The General Public Sees My Service Dog