Post Classifieds

Service animals are more than a friend

By Christina Uptain
On February 8, 2019

Winter has set in with a vengeance and though clean-up efforts are continuous, there are those who encounter difficulty getting around and completing daily tasks. 

For Kirkwood Community College human services and psychology student Topanga Henderson, day-to-day life is challenging without the aid of her service dog, a black lab mix named Lillian Marie (Lilly).  

A service animal is defined and federally protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act as, “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”  

The document further defines “work” as, “the dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability,” and cites examples such as a dog trained to detect the onset of a seizure or remind a diabetic to administer their insulin. These animals cannot be refused entrance to public places, such as restaurants and cannot be denied when looking for and obtaining housing. 

Henderson said she counts on Lilly for a variety of needs, such as turning on lights and alerting to the onset of anxiety or the presence of another person, especially intruders but the learning is not done yet. 

“Lilly was adopted from the Cedar Valley Humane Society and we have had her for just over a year… We have tried training her ourselves but it is quite a task to take on, so we are looking into professional training to have the best possible outcome for both of us,” said Henderson. 

Dr. Randy Ackman, veterinarian and instructor of multiple classes for KCC’s animal health programs, recently spoke from personal experience of the demands and costs associated with meeting the ADA definition of individual training.  

“Since 2008, my wife and I have helped train a total of eight dogs in their first steps of becoming a service animal… all in all it costs about $55,000 and takes almost three years to professionally train a service dog and there are many steps involved in the process,” said Ackman. 

While the ADA does not require professional training, it is very clear that specific tasks to aid a disabled person must be taught and performed. 

In the recent past, the growing popularity of pocket pets as well as companion or emotional support animals seem to have muddled the lines in the eyes of the general public. Stories have circulated of attempts to circumvent rules and regulations regarding animals and have caused some invalid questioning and even unlawful rejection of service animals despite being protected by law. 

“The most important thing to remember is that services animals are there to aid the disabled person in completing daily tasks- they have a job to do and are individually trained, unlike emotional support or companion animals and are essential to those they help,” Ackman added.  

Henderson’s dog Lilly is classified as a service animal. “Once she is fully trained, Lilly will also help with things such as medication reminders and grounding me by licking my hand or whining, which is called deep pressure therapy. I also suffer from dizzy spells that have not been able to be diagnosed, so Lilly is very important to me and my quality of life,” Henderson stated.

When asked what they would like the public to remember about service animals versus others, both Ackman and Henderson agreed that most important is that they are working animals and are not simply a pet or companion animals. Most service dogs wear a vest to alert the public but are not required to and it is best to leave the animal alone, so they can aid their handlers/owners in living their daily lives as independently as possible without distraction or interruption. 

For more information about the ADA and service animals, visit

From left to right: Havana, Justice and Franklin, owned and trained by Kirkwood professor Dr. Randy Ackman. Justice will be leaving in a few weeks for his next phase of service dog training. PHOTO BY CHRISTINA UPTAIN.


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