A friend recently asked me about having service dogs in classrooms. Her sister, who is a learning resources teacher, told her about an autistic child who will be attending her school with a dog. The dog prevents the child from bolting and helps reduce anxiety. She thought this was an interesting topic because of the various pros and cons that need to be considered, and I certainly agree. It may seem simple at first glance, but when you think about it, it’s a rather complex situation.
Contact with animals always comes with some risk. We can never eliminate the risk entirely. What we need to do is determine how to maximize the benefits and minimize the concerns, and ultimately decide whether the benefits are worth the risks.
In this situation:
Potential concerns/risks (to the child and/or those around him/her):
- Zoonotic disease transmission
- Anxiety in children/adults who are fearful of dogs
- Management issues (e.g. who’s responsible for making sure the dog gets walked)
- Classroom disruption (e.g. barking, whining, wandering)
- Letting the child attend and get the most out of school
That’s a pretty big benefit, and it’s clear this is a good situation as long as the risks are controllable.
What should be done in a situation like this?
- The true need for the dog has to be assessed. Is it really beneficial? Presumably yes, but the question has to be part of the assessment. There should be a formal evaluation/way to determine that "yes, this animal is needed so we should do everything we can to facilitate it." It doesn’t need to be a restrictive process at all, but it should be in place. (The situation in the US with the ADA complicates this – pretty much anyone can say they have a service animal and the amount of scrutiny that can be applied is minimal. More discussion about this can be found in a previous post, just click here).
- The dog should, ideally, come from a recognized service dog organization. This ensures that the dog/person pair is properly evaluated and the dog is trained. If this is not possible, then the next best thing is for the pair to be involved with a service organization so they get similar (but after-the-fact) training. Getting a formally trained dog may be difficult under some conditions because, while some service dog types (e.g. guide dogs for the blind) are well established, formal programs to provide trained dogs for many other conditions are uncommon or or non-existent.
- The school board should be notified as early as possible. This gives them the chance to make any necessary arrangements.
- Parents of other children in the classroom should be notified. They don’t need to be told why the dog is needed (privacy of the student bringing the dog is an important issue), but they should be told a service dog will be in the class and what the school will do to reduce any potential problems. If there are any concerns (e.g. serious allergies, fear of dogs) they should be allowed to move their children to another class without any hassles. Ideally this should be done before the school year starts to reduce any possible stigma of someone being moved because of the dog.
- The teacher should be educated about risks and benefits of therapy dogs. The teacher is a critical link as he/she will oversee routine management of the animal. The teacher needs to understand the benefits of service animals in order to accept the animal in the class. The teacher also needs to understand the potential problems so he/she takes his/her role in management of the situation seriously.
- General hygiene practices (e.g. hand washing after touching the dog) should be emphasized and enforced.
- Any "incidents" must be recorded and reported. Furthermore, follow up to figure out what happened, why and how it can be prevented is crucial. Any aggressive or other disruptive behaviour by the dog cannot be tolerated and requires an immediate review. A proper service dog should not pose any significant behavioural risks (e.g. biting, barking during class, wandering around). The less the scrutiny of the dog at the start, and the less the specific training, the greater the likelihood of such problems occuring.
- The dog’s veterinarian should know it’s a service animal. The dog must be examined by a vet at least yearly, and at a minimum it must be properly vaccinated against rabies. If the dog becomes sick, it must be taken to a vet promptly. If the vet identifies a disease that might be transmissible to people, the dog must not go to school until the risk period for transmission has passed.
- A plan must be established for walking the dog and handling feces. The dog should not be taken to defecate on the playground. It should have a separate grassed area in which to defecate that is away from where children play. Feces must be promptly removed and disposed of, and hands washed.
Service animals can be a contentious and emotional topic. They certainly do provide tremendous benefits to some people, so we need to do what we can to facilitate them. At the same time, we need to properly manage the situation to reduce risks to others. Usually, a thorough proactive review of risks and benefits, and a detailed discussion of what will be done, can greatly reduce any concerns and maximize the benefits. They key is actually thinking about these issues and doing something about them before there is a problem.