Developing Criteria For Determining When A Child Is Old Enough For A Service Dog

Many service dog programs establish age restrictions for potential handlers, often setting a minimum age of 12 or 16 for eligibility.

It’s crucial to remember that the decision to acquire a service dog involves a comprehensive evaluation, weighing not just the potential benefits for the person with disabilities (PWD) but also considering the well-being of the animal. Service dogs are distinct from assistive devices like wheelchairs; they require constant care and can experience pain or distress if neglected. Unlike a wheelchair, which remains unaffected by lack of use, a service dog is a living being with complex needs.

Effective stewardship is essential for a service dog. This includes the handler’s ability to manage, care for, and communicate with the dog. For example, a service dog handler needs to be vigilant in public settings, anticipating potential distractions or threats, such as overzealous children or tempting food scraps on the floor. Dogs, no matter how well-trained, are not infallible and can make mistakes, emphasizing the need for constant reinforcement and correction from a skilled handler.

Service dogs are incredible aids, but they are not equivalent to fictional hero dogs like Lassie. They possess the cognitive capacity of a three-year-old child and should not be expected to perform beyond their capabilities. Assigning them the role of a guardian or babysitter for a child is unrealistic and unfair both to the dog and the child. The handler, in the human-dog partnership, must always assume the responsible adult role.

For instance, a handler must plan and adapt to ensure the dog’s needs are met, like scheduling bathroom breaks around important activities. Children, particularly those who are not yet capable of such forethought and care, may not be ready to assume the full responsibility of handling a service dog.

There’s a tendency, especially among parents of autistic children, to acquire a service dog under the premise that the child will be the primary handler, with the parent acting as a “backup.” However, this often results in the parent becoming the actual handler, using the dog more as a tool for parenting rather than as a service animal for the child. This scenario can lead to complicated dynamics where the child and dog’s relationship becomes secondary to the parent’s control.

When parents invest in a service dog hoping for a miraculous solution to challenges like wandering or demanding behaviors, they often face a harsh reality. Managing both the child and the dog simultaneously, especially in maintaining the dog’s training, can be overwhelming. The conflicting roles the dog is expected to play can be confusing and counterproductive.

If a child isn’t genuinely prepared to fully manage a service dog (including all aspects of their care), it’s advisable to wait until they are mature enough to handle such a responsibility successfully. In the meantime, a skilled companion dog might be a more suitable option. These dogs, often from service programs but not qualified for service work, can provide many benefits like companionship and comfort without the full responsibilities of a service dog.

Finally, it’s important to consider the emotional impact on a child if a service dog arrangement doesn’t work out. After building a bond and relying on the dog, it can be distressing and confusing for a child to understand why the arrangement needs to change.

Therefore, it’s imperative to think thoroughly before seeking a service dog for a child, recognizing the potential complexities and responsibilities involved.

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