Animals on duty: understanding their service


Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Lauren Berglund takes a photo of Morrill Hall with her guide dog, Sheba, by her side. Lauren was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a condition that causes a lack of pigment in her skin, hair and eyes. She uses photography as a way to capture the details she can’t see with her naked eye. 

Mary Pautsch

It is not uncommon to find some furry friends walking alongside their owners on campus, but some are doing important, life-saving work.

These special animals are service animals, whose jobs are to aid people with mental and physical disabilities.

Service animals are not pets. They are specifically trained animals, usually dogs, that perform tasks specialized toward an individual person and their disability.

Lauren Berglund, junior in child, adult and family services and vice president of the Alliance for Disability Awareness, uses her service dog, Sheba, as a guide dog.

Berglund has a condition called oculocutaneous albinism, which leaves her with a lack of pigment in her hair, skin and eyes. She is also legally blind. That’s where Sheba comes into play.

“I have had [Sheba] since June of 2015,” Berglund said. “So just over two years.”

Before getting Sheba, Berglund used a white cane to navigate her surroundings. A cane can help a blind person find obstacles so they can maneuver around them. A guide dog, however, can find the obstacle before the person does without the need to hit objects.

“She can find a different location and landmarks, like doors, stairs, elevators, buildings, classrooms,” Berglund said. “And then she also navigates me around stationary and moving objects.”

Sheba and other guide dogs can also alert their owner to changes in elevation and curves via a harness that lets a person feel the movement of the dog. For Berglund, this means having more confidence and independence while navigating a busy environment, such as Iowa State’s campus.

“For myself, I think [Sheba’s] ability to maneuver through crowds and busy places is just great in any situation,” Berglund said.

Berglund and Sheba are not the only example of what a service dog can help accomplish. Service animals can have a variety of titles, such as a hearing dogs, medical alert dogs, autism support animals and psychiatric service dogs.

“There are dogs who do anxiety and PTSD,” Berglund said. “So they are a type of psychiatric service dog who will do deep pressure therapy by using their body weight, they can alert their handler to different things, they can watch their handler’s back in crowds… There’s just tons of types.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, in order for an animal to be considered a service dog, it must be trained to specifically help a person with disabilities. That is to say, an emotional support animal who provides comfort in its own presence but does not use a certain skill, is not a service animal.

The ADA also protects handlers to have their service animals in public spaces, including college campuses and classrooms. Denying entry to or service from a business on the grounds that the individual has a service animal is illegal.

“In the university there are some places where service dogs are not allowed, like labs, that places need to be sterile, or put the dog in danger, or fundamentally alter the environment,” Berglund said. “Then that’s a place where a dog wouldn’t have the right to go.”

There is also no such thing as service animal “certification.” The ADA and U.S. Department of Justice do not recognize people or organizations that offer this “service.”

“Anything you see on the internet or in an ad is basically a scam,” Berglund said. “The laws don’t require anything.”

Although Sheba has benefited Berglund’s life at college, she does admit there can be some drawbacks. She said that some people are unaware of how to properly interact with, or rather leave a service dog on duty alone.

“Everyone misses their pets back home, so people will want to pet your dog and such,” Berglund said. “So that can get a bit much, just the extra attention.”

Berglund said that this unwanted, extra attention toward Sheba, or any other service animal, could have negative consequences. Although service animals are trained to ignore distractions, they still have animal tendencies and instincts.

These distractions can keep a service dog’s mind off their job, leading to accidents.

“Even though they’re cute and adorable, you really just need to ignore the fact that they’re there,” Berglund said.

These distractions can be anything from petting a service animal without permission to simply making eye contact with it. Berglund said she will have people also wanting pictures of her dog, talking to it or making noises at it almost everyday.

“Distracting a service dog can lead to very serious injury to the handler, so it’s important not to do so,” Berglund said. “And if someone says no, don’t be offended. They might just be needing to get somewhere, or they’re busy or it’s just not a good day.”

Berglund said that all in all, she is very pleased with her experience with Sheba. Although Sheba is not considered a pet under the law, Berglund says that there are still times at home where they will play around or snuggle on the couch when Sheba’s not working.

“Even though she’s still a service dog, at home she gets to be a normal dog,” Berglund said. “And a lot of people struggle to comprehend that she can go from sleeping under my chair in class to running laps around my apartment playing with her toys.”

Service animals get to “choose” when they retire from their duties as a working animal. Some simply do not like to work anymore, while others may decline in health as they age like any other dog. Overall, the average working time for a service dog is six to eight years.

As for Berglund and Sheba, they will decide when the time comes if Sheba will live with Berglund herself during Sheba’s “reitrement,” or with Berglund’s parents. However, Berglund does want to make one thing clear. 

“She is mine,” Bergland said. “Forever.”