Training Service Animals for People With Disabilities

Kaitlyn Weimer brought her college roommate home to Hudsonville for Christmas vacation – and played fetch with her, too.

Kaitlyn, 19, is studying to become a service dog trainer at the Bergin University for Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, Calif., the only accredited school of its kind in the world. It’s where the term “service dog” originated.

Most certification programs for dog trainers run 12 to 16 weeks, but Bergin’s offerings range from the tertiary to a master’s level degree in dogs.

Kaitlyn Weimer and Ireland

Kaitlyn Weimer and Ireland

“I want a career that feels significant and helps people,” said Kaitlyn, a 2012 graduate of Hudsonville High School. “Yet dealing directly with people all the time would be, for me, kind of tiresome. It’s easier to have patience with dogs. They’re really amazing, especially in the way they can help people and the environment.”

As a capstone project, one of the other 50 students at Bergin taught his own dog to sniff out the feces of the Emerald Ash Borer – a measure that could help save ash trees from their arch nemesis.

A lifelong dog lover, Kaitlyn hopes to return to West Michigan as a guide dog trainer. One day, she says she may seek additional training to specialize in training diabetes-alert or seizure-alert dogs.

Each semester Kaitlyn is paired with a young service-dog trainee – “a 24/7 homework assignment,” according to Kaitlyn -- that will eventually be donated to someone with a disability. The two-week trip home for the holidays was Kaitlyn’s last big outing with Ireland, a year-old Black Lab who weighs 60 pounds.

Before the trip, Kaitlyn had to train Ireland to lie quietly for hours at a time in a confined space approximating the area under an airplane seat.

Instruction taught in a dog law and ethics class proved valuable when changing her airline ticket after Kaitlyn found out Ireland would be accompanying her to Michigan as part of their training.

The ticket agent initially applied surcharges for rebooking and for upgrading Kaitlyn to an economy seat that would provide more room for Ireland underneath.

Kaitlyn pointed out that both changes were “reasonable accommodations under the Air Carrier Access Act, which governs service-dog access in the skies, and should be made without additional charge to the handler.

“Airlines know this, but it’s not something that comes up all the time for their representatives,” Kaitlyn said. “Knowing the rules really helps.”

Here are some basic rules:

·     A service animal is defined as an animal that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability, which may be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or cognitive.

·     People have a right to ask the handler what tasks the service animal performs for them. However, it’s out of line to ask the handler to disclose his or her disability.

·     Service animals can be removed if they are not housebroken, not groomed, or not under the control of their handler. The animal does not have to be on a leash. The animal must be permitted as soon as its behaving like a service animal again. Handlers can be charged for damages the animal causes.

·     Although labs and Golden Retrievers are the most common choice for service animals, no breeds are disallowed.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers access in public places, and places where the public is invited. ADA does not guarantee access for animals whose only “work” is providing comfort. Because of the legal separation of church and state, churches are an exception.

Once Kaitlyn’s right to have Ireland at her side at Bible study was challenged on grounds that another attendee was allergic to dogs.

Common sense usually prevails when there’s no law stating who has rights. Kaityn and Ireland were not ordered to leave the church, but they started attending an affiliated Bible study nearby where allergies were not a concern.

Dogs don’t have a monopoly on the service animal industry. Miniature horses (weighing 70 to 100 pounds and 24 to 34 inches tall) are also accepted as a “reasonable accommodation.” Horses are stronger than dogs and therefore better suited for handlers who have to be pulled.

However, the Air Carrier Access Law draws the line on snakes, spiders and rodents. They’re not service animals.

If you have questions about service animals in public places, please contact Disability Network/Lakeshore at 616-396-5326.