Facilitation with Service Dogs: What is it?

By Kristin Hartness, Canines for Disabled Kids

Facilitation is when a person, usually a child under the age of 14, is placed in a 3-way service dog partnership. The child, the service dog, and a facilitator work together in public environments as a team.  The team can work in public only when all 3 partners are together. This means that a child is not taking the dog to school or other activities without the facilitator and that the facilitator is not taking the dog to the grocery store or other location without the child.

When a facilitated service dog relationship works successfully with a child at a younger age, it can help the child to use this tool more effectively to complete tasks independently thus encouraging the natural growth towards independence all children strive for. 

Service dogs and facilitation

Photo credit: Michael Stone Portraits

Facilitation Allows Children with Disabilities to Thrive through Work with Assistance Dogs

Depending on which training program you select facilitation may also be called supervised, dual placement or a 3rd party handler. The facilitator is most often the parent or guardian of the child. In some cases, a personal aide has also been trained. It is important to know what your training program supports in this role. Will they only train a parent? How many facilitators will they allow? What restriction do they have when they place a facilitated service dog?

The role of the facilitator is either to instruct or supervise. If supervising he or she makes sure that both the child and the dog are working properly together—the child gives a command and the dog follows it. Or if instructing the dog, he or she decided which skills to use when for the benefit of the child.

The facilitator is the legal handler and must have the dog under control in all public environments.

Girl and her service dog

If the child is trained to give commands, the facilitator oversees or supervises, helping by reminding the child to give the correct commands as clearly as possible (as possible for that individual), to reward the dog appropriately and to follow through on instruction. He or she also monitors the dog to help refocus the dog on the child, assure the dog does not forget his/her manners in public spaces and completes the exercise as instructed. The facilitator is still the responsible party—ultimately the person in control of the service dog.

Facilitators attend training with the child. He or she learns the specifics of the team—what and how to supervise. He or she learns how to help the bonding process, which is ongoing between child and canine.  He or she assures proper care of the dog in grooming, feeding and playtime. A facilitator must also be responsible to make sure the team does their homework—practicing the skills needed to make their team a success.

Service Dogs Key to Future Independence and Autonomy

One goal of facilitation is to have children with a variety of physical disabilities learn to use their canine tool as a regular and productive part of their lives so that, when they are about 14 or 15 years old, they can retest as non-facilitated teams to be able to travel and work with their service dogs as full teams, going to school, the movies with friends, out to dinner and more. 

Even though not all children are able to move to the goal of non-facilitation, the aid given by their canine partner is valuable. Some children are affected cognitively as well as physically by their disability to a point they cannot assume full responsibility for their canine partner. These children will continue to work with their dogs under the facilitation of the parents. In these cases the service dogs do not have the goal of moving beyond facilitation. 

Boy and his service dog

In cases were the child will always need a facilitator, the facilitator—not the child—instructs the dog. The facilitator is taught in training how and when to use each trained skill for the child's benefit. Training for these teams often have the adult train with the dog for a period before introducing the child to the process.

All children should be evaluated on an individual basis by their trainers and considered for re-evaluation when the family makes a request. The ages mentioned previously are guidelines; some children have been tested as young as 11, while others are never able to successfully retest.

Facilitated service dogs can be valuable tools to help children with a variety of disabilities gain independence. Trained skills such as fetching items can help children to pick up their toys or put on their jackets without the aid of a parent. Skills such as turning light switches on or off, or carrying items in a backpack can help children to be more responsible about the spaces they live in. Having a service dog alert a facilitator to a diabetic high or low will allow this child to play naturally without a parent hovering looking for when to check their blood. Being able to get up without calling for someone to turn on a light or pick up a dropped pencil without having to wait for a person to have time to help you are things many people take for granted. Using a facilitated service dog allows a child to expand their independence and responsibilities overcoming some limitations caused by their disabilities.

Type of Disability Dictates the Right Age to Engage a Facilitated Service Dog

Just when is the right time for a partnership like this? It will vary depending on the trained skills the dog needs to help. The more instruction the child needs to give, the older the child should be. A child with diabetes may benefit from a service dog that alerts the facilitator at a very young age; while a child who is wheelchair based and needs to instruct the service dog to pick up items, tug open a door, or turn light switches on or off will need to be older, perhaps closer to 10, to get the maximum benefit. 

Facilitated service dogs play an important role in helping children with a variety of disabilities gain independence every day.

About the Author:

Kristin Hartness is the Executive Director for Canines for Disabled Kids. An accomplished public speaker, Kristin speaks nationally and internationally on the value of service dogs in the lives of people living with a variety of disabilities and the laws which govern them. She works with communities, schools and businesses to help them welcome service dog teams through their actions and policies. A service dog user herself, Kristin knows firsthand the independence a service dog brings to an individual. Kristin's newest partner, Asha, a smooth coat collie, continues to bring independence to Kristin's active life.


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