Service dogs can assist students with a variety of medical conditions, physical or cognitive disabilities, and must be allowed anywhere its person is.  -  Photo: Canine Companions

Service dogs can assist students with a variety of medical conditions, physical or cognitive disabilities, and must be allowed anywhere its person is.

Photo: Canine Companions

For students with disabilities, special accommodations are often made in schools and on the school bus to safely transport them. But some students need even more help than a wheelchair or other physical support can offer. That’s where service animals step in – literally!

Students with disabilities have the right to bring their service dogs not only to school with them, but also on the bus. In fact, they can be anywhere their handler is, even if there is a no-pets policy.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as a dog that has been individually trained to perform work or tasks directly related to a person’s disability. This can include offering mobility assistance, hearing or sight, or monitoring for medical conditions like seizures. A service dog must be under control and behave in a safe, non-aggressive manner at all times.

According to Jean Zimmerman and Kathy Furneaux in a 2004 School Bus Fleet article, “We cannot require that the student or the dog have a special identification, nor can we ask the student what disability they have. We can, however, ask what service the dog will provide for the student.”

There are a few federal laws that apply to service animals in school settings:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability in programs that receive federal funding (i.e., public schools).
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides civil rights protections to all individuals with disabilities and prohibits discrimination by state and local governments, including public schools.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to provide all eligible children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to the child’s individual needs. This applies only to public primary and secondary schools and requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Program for each eligible student.

Other Support Animals

It’s important to distinguish the difference between a service dog and other types of support animals. According to Canine Companions, the distinctions are as follows.

  • Facility dogs are highly trained in specific tasks to assist professionals working in healthcare, rehabilitation, criminal justice, or education settings and help improve client outcomes. These dogs aren’t permitted in public where service dogs are.
  • Therapy dogs are pets that have been certified to visit and provide comfort to people who need it. Therapy dogs should not be in public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Emotional support dogs are pets that help people with mental health disorders feel comforted and calm. They’re not trained and don’t have the right to go into public.

Let’s Talk Training

Service dogs are working animals, not pets, and often require years of training to do their job. But what goes into preparing a pup to help its handler?

There are multitudes of organizations that train dogs to become service animals. Many specialize in training for various needs or settings. Canine Companions is one organization that provides service dogs to children with an adult serving as the dog’s handler. In their case, a child under 18 would not be handling a service dog from Canine Companions on their own. However, they do serve children with physical or cognitive disabilities, and offer lots of research and information for anyone to learn more about the process, placement, etiquette, and more.

According to its website, each Canine Companions dog spends the first year and a half with a volunteer puppy raiser to learn basic tasks and socialize in public and private settings. Then, the dog enters professional training at a regional training center for five to nine months, where they learn the advanced commands that support the work of a service dog. They ensure that every dog receives rigorous medical and temperamental screening so that each dog is healthy, happy, and appropriate in their role.

Once a dog has completed professional training at Canine Companions, it is ready to be matched with a person with a disability. Matching happens at a regional training center over a two-week group class. Here, students learn to manage the service dog’s behavior, direct the dog to respond to commands, and assume responsibility for maintaining the health and well-being of the animal.

Make sure to check all federal and state laws for service animals, develop a district policy, and communicate with all staff, drivers, and students about a service animal prior to it ever boarding the bus.  -  Photo: Canine Companions

Make sure to check all federal and state laws for service animals, develop a district policy, and communicate with all staff, drivers, and students about a service animal prior to it ever boarding the bus.

Photo: Canine Companions

Etiquette and Awareness

Canine Companions sometimes has children whose aides or parents accompany them to class with the dog. In these cases, they offer the following tips.

  • Prep district staff and drivers on the rules around interacting with the service dog prior to the arrival of the dog.
  • Prep students on the same; the new team might want to introduce their dog.
  • Consider roadblocks, like managing separate spaces for students with allergies.
  • Always approach the handler first, not the dog.
  • Remember that even a dog appears to be “off duty,” there’s a good chance that they are waiting for the next task from their handler. Think of a service dog as being “on call.”

Service Dogs in Practice: Feedback from a Colo. School

Douglas County School District (DCSD) in Colorado is one of the many schools across the world that works with service animals. Paula Hans, public information officer, says that they follow all state guidelines for transporting service animals, and for the student with the animal, they are transported just like any other student.

The district has implemented various policies for service dogs (and only dogs) in its facilities. The animal must meet the requirements and qualifications for a service animal, which are verified by ADA partners through a checklist that is collaboratively worked on by the ADA coordinators, the school, the parents and transportation. Anyone using a service animal must complete required paperwork and submit a vaccination record for the animal.

Further, the handler must be able to manage the service animal, which must be properly trained (no jumping on people, etc.) and potty trained. A student’s request for a service animal may be denied otherwise, according to Hans.

DCSD has standard operating procedures for implementing service animals in transportation settings, including notifying all other riders that the animal will be on the bus. “If someone is allergic or has any other issues with the animal, we try to re-route that student and mitigate any foreseeable problems,” Hans said.

Celebrate Service Dogs!

  • Every September is National Service Dog Month to honor the working dogs who help people gain greater independence.
  • In 2023, International Assistance Dog Week will be August 7-13. The week recognizes all the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs helping individuals mitigate their disability-related limitations.

Tips for Schools

If a school district is new to a student using a service animal, Hans advises following the requirements that identify what a service animal is and the verification process put forth by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to ensure the animal meets all requirements. She also recommends reaching out to surrounding districts to see how they have created their processes, as they can help navigate how to implement the service animal for your own district.

When it comes to getting the student and the animal on the bus, the service dog can be separated from its handler long enough to safely board the school bus. Never allow the animal on a bus lift. Rather, lead the service dog up the steps while the student is on the lift. Otherwise, if the child can board the steps, let the dog ascend the steps separately and first.

While opinions vary as to whether the animal should be restrained, experts agree that once on the bus, the best position for the dog is between a wheelchair the wall, and never in the aisle.

Have policies and procedures in place for emergency situations or behavioral issues.

And like anything, communication is key. “The bus driver, parents, riders, and the district all need to be made aware of the service animal prior to the animal being brought in, and work together through the implementation process as a team,” Hans says. “It’s also important to find out if anyone who will be exposed to the animal could be allergic. If so, the person with the service animal still has the right to have the animal on the premises, and accommodations should be made for the person who is allergic.”

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