Seeing eye dogs have been welcomed by congregations and almost everywhere else for generations, but recent headlines show the confusion that has arisen from some newer classes of animal helpers.

One story notes that an “emotional assistance peacock” was denied transport on one airline. Another cites injury to a child by an emotional support dog whose owner wanted to take him along on a flight from Phoenix. The dog was not allowed to board the 737 after the reported incident.

Just which animals are safe and effective enough to welcome on Sunday? An informal survey of our larger churches in Galveston County found that most don’t have formal policies in place and are unsure if members are already attending with animals in tow so it seemed like a good time to check with local and national experts on just what churches need to know about service dogs.

To frame the discussion, it should first be noted that houses of worship are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act which regulates assistance animals in commercial venues and other locations like schools. And that there are differing rules for the various classes of assistance animals: service, emotional support, therapy and even reading dogs.

Cathy Dorchuck owns Santa Fe’s A Pawsitive Approach dog training academy where she helps prepare her clients and their animals to transverse both temples of faith and the rest of daily life, together.

“A church doesn’t have to allow a service dog on the premises because it is private property and is exempt from federal requirements,” she said. “It is up to each individual congregation to decide whether or not service dogs are allowed. Secondly, the service dog handler needs to respect the wishes of the church and the church members. With that being said, I do have clients whom have obtained permission to bring their service animal with them to church. I would hope that the pastors and rabbis would ask, ‘Is that a service animal? If so, what task does it perform?’”

Service dogs are extensively trained and certified, often at great cost, but emotional support animals are not required to meet the same standards, thus they do not have public access rights and may only fly with their handler without an additional fee, Dorchuck noted. Lastly, therapy dogs are specifically trained to assist the community during times of stress and/or need and may be found at hospitals, nursing homes, foster homes and schools during times of crisis.

None of the recent headlines involving kerfuffles or injury involved an actual service dog. Why?

“A medically necessary service dog takes 18-24 months working with the dog and the handler on a weekly basis,” Dorchuck explained. “Most of this work is done in public places to ensure that the dog and the handler can function together in any situation during the course of daily life. It takes over 1,000 hours of public access training as a team and over 2,500 hours to task train each service dog.”

The costs for such training can top $50,000.

Margaret McLeod, a field representative, spokesperson and trainer with the national Paws with a Cause organization said that it was important for congregants to focus on the owner, not the service dog.

“As attendees at your place of worship, your responsibility is to ignore the dog, but not the person,” she said. “It is helpful if people do not talk to or pet the dog. Petting or talking can be distracting to the dog, and it might not be able to focus on the work it needs to perform.”

She added that service dogs are well-behaved and all but invisible when working.

“Should a dog not behave or should it cause a commotion, then it is proper to ask the owner to take the dog out of the service,” McLeod said. “I have brought each of my trainee puppies to my church. Being able to bring the puppies to church allows me to expose them to all of the things going on during a service. I am able to have them exposed to lights, music, clapping and other things they might encounter as a service dog. One of the best compliments I can get? When someone finally notices the dog and tells me, ‘I didn’t even know there was a dog here.’”

For more information, Dorchuck can be reached at 281-450-1953 and Paws with a Cause at 800-253-7297.

Next week in Our Faith: Sundays in the pew with Rover.

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