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Clients With Service Animals: Considerations for Social Work Practice
By Jonathan Conover, MSW, LCSWA, CTP

In recent years, service animals have been used by individuals with disabilities, offering vital aid in daily life. According to ShareAmerica.com, in the United States, there are more than 500,000 service dogs. These highly trained animals, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, perform tailored tasks, from guiding the visually impaired to alerting individuals to medical emergencies.

Understanding the Benefits of Service Animals
Service animals offer vital assistance to individuals with disabilities, tailored to their unique needs, enhancing physical and psychological well-being. Guide dogs aid visually impaired individuals, while mobility assistance dogs aid those with limited mobility. Hearing alert dogs notify those with hearing impairments of critical sounds. Moreover, service animals are trained to detect and respond to medical emergencies, such as seizures, by providing assistance and alerting the handler or others for help. Psychiatric service animals offer emotional support, instilling confidence and promoting engagement in daily activities for individuals with psychiatric disabilities. Their presence significantly enhances daily functioning and independence, enabling handlers to navigate environments and tasks more effectively. This support fosters autonomy, resilience, and an improved quality of life for individuals with disabilities.

Considerations for Social Workers Working With Clients With Service Animals
Social workers play a pivotal role in providing support and assistance to clients who rely on service animals, acknowledging the unique challenges and considerations inherent in working with this demographic. When working with clients who depend on service animals, several key factors should be taken into account.

Establishing a strong rapport with clients who have service animals is crucial for fostering trust, collaboration, and effective communication. It is essential to recognize that the presence of a service animal does not automatically invite discussions about the client's disability or the role of the service animal. Handlers may be sensitive to these questions because they commonly are asked by others in inappropriate settings. Therefore, prioritizing the establishment of rapport is paramount, gradually transitioning into necessary discussions that benefit the client while respecting their boundaries and reasons for seeking therapy. After some rapport is built, it’s advisable to ease into asking only necessary questions that benefit the client, not those driven by personal curiosity. This approach enables social workers to better understand their clients while respecting their boundaries. Creating a safe and supportive environment conducive to healing and growth is imperative, acknowledging that clients seek therapy for specific reasons and that discussing the service animal or the client's disability prematurely may deter them from engaging fully in the therapeutic process. This principle applies to intake procedures as well, where inquiries about medical history can be addressed without immediately focusing on the presence of the service animal during the first meeting.

Many service dog teams encounter frequent discrimination, which can significantly influence their well-being and access to services. Handlers may experience fear when entering new environments due to concerns regarding access or potential negative interactions. Social workers need to validate and acknowledge these experiences, offering support and guidance to help clients navigate instances of discrimination and advocate for their rights in diverse settings.

Some service animal handlers have experienced traumatic incidents, such as threats, violence, attacks by pet dogs, or encounters with individuals with fraudulent service animals. Additionally, individuals with disabilities often face discrimination and stigma, leading to trauma responses over time. Social workers should be attentive to these experiences, offering trauma-informed care to assist clients in processing and coping with their experiences effectively. By acknowledging and supporting potential traumatic experiences and adjustments, social workers can aid clients with service animals in navigating their unique challenges, fostering healing, and promoting resilience.

Service animal handlers may have experienced a loss of support from family or friends or access to certain spaces due to their need to have a service animal. Thisloss of support systems and access, such as from religious institutions, private clubs, friends, and family, can be emotionally challenging and may affect the client's well-being and sense of belonging. Social workers should be mindful that therapy may need to encompass elements of grief counseling due to the loss of support systems and access to specific spaces. Understanding and addressing these dynamics are essential for providing comprehensive support to clients with service animals, ensuring their emotional well-being, and facilitating their therapeutic journey.

Social workers supporting clients with service animals must understand the unique considerations involved. Cultural humility is critical in their approach, enabling them to effectively reach their clients and improve treatment outcomes. Key considerations include building rapport, respecting boundaries, and fostering a supportive environment. Integrating awareness and sensitivity toward service animal teams is essential to addressing potential discrimination or stigma. Ongoing research is needed to explore the intersectionality of identities for individuals with service animals. By addressing this population and their unique experiences, social workers can enhance tailored support for clients with service animals, improving their well-being and treatment outcomes.

— Jonathan Conover, MSW, LCSWA, CTP, is an outpatient therapist in Fayetteville, North Carolina. With a heartfelt commitment to various communities, including veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the homeless population, he’s deeply entrenched in social work advocacy and empowerment. As an active member of the NASW-NC Equity and Inclusion Committee and the Legislative/Advocacy Committee, Conover leverages his expertise to drive positive change and shape social work policies. His previous role on the NASW-NC Board of Directors further underscores his commitment to advancing the profession and advocating for marginalized populations. Conover also is part of a service animal team; his German Shepherd dog plays a crucial role in alerting him to his atonic seizures. This experience informs his practice and motivates him to contribute to the discourse on service animals and their impact both on individuals with disabilities and the social workers who serve them.