They guide, listen, balance, lead and love. They provide friendship and independence, freedom and peace of mind. They live to serve their handler to the fullest extent of their capability, be it through retrieving dropped items, offering physical support to an unsteady handler or alerting a Deaf or hard of hearing handler to important events. We’re talking about Service and Assistance Dogs, and this month, September, is National Service Dog Month. It’s all about celebrating the magic these special dogs bring to their people’s lives.
National Service Dog Month is all about honoring the hardworking dogs (and the people who helped them become all that they are) that serve individuals with disabilities of all kinds, including physical, mental and developmental disabilities. Per the online magazine DogTime, this month of recognition used to be known as National Guide Dog Month, and it was established in 2008 by Dick Van Patten. DogTime goes on to note that he was “inspired by what he experienced during a life-changing visit to the Guide Dogs of the Desert facility in Palm Springs, Calif.,” and that as a result, “Van Patten launched a fundraising drive to benefit guide and service dog training schools throughout the country.”
What initially began as a single fundraiser has since morphed into an entire month of events meant to bring recognition to the Service Dog community, and to help educate everyone about Service Dogs and the life changing work they perform for their handlers. It’s also meant to celebrate the hard work of puppy raisers and all of those who support a Service Dog on its way to greatness, including trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and others who have a vested interested in helping Service Dogs succeed.
So, in honor of National Service Dog Month, we here at Anything Pawsable bring you “10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Service Dogs!”
1. Service Dogs Can Be Any Color, Size or Breed
There’s nothing that says Service Dogs can only be Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds. While those 3 breeds are some of the most commonly seen Service Dogs, absolutely any dog with the proper temperament, good health and structure, and the physical capability to do the job their person needs them to do (as an example, a 30 pound dog cannot do brace and mobility support work) can be a Service Dog, regardless of color, size or breed.
2. Service Dogs Come In Multiple Varieties
Everyone knows what guide dogs are, and most people have heard of hearing dogs. People often know immediately that a dog wearing a special harness and partnered with an individual in a wheelchair is a Service Dog, although they may not know exactly what that dog does for its person. However, there are well over a dozen distinct varieties of Service Dogs, including, but not limited to:
- Allergy Alert Dogs
- Autism Assistance Dogs
- Brace and Mobility Support Dogs
- Emergency Medical Response Dogs
- Diabetic Alert Dogs
- Hearing Dogs
- Guide Dogs
- Medical Alert Dogs
- Medical Assistance Dogs
- Medical Response Dogs
- Psychiatric Service Dogs
- Seizure Alert Dogs
- Seizure Assistance Dogs
- Seizure Response Dogs
- Visual Assistance Dogs
- Wheelchair Assistance Dogs
3. Service Dogs Aren’t Just For Emotional Support
Service Dogs don’t just offer companionship and emotional support to their people. In fact, any dog that does that and only that isn’t a Service Dog — it’s an Emotional Support Dog. In order to be a Service Dog, a dog has to possess specialized training that mitigates some part of their handler’s disability. It can’t be a behavior the dog offers naturally, either, since that isn’t a trained behavior. It must be a specific, predictable behavior tied to a cue or trigger that the dog performs reliably in order to be considered trained task work.
4. Service Dogs Perform Specialized Work and Tasks For Their Person
Service Dogs possess specialized training that mitigates their person’s disability. Depending on the type of Service Dog, the dog may have anywhere from 3 to a dozen different tasks or even more! Some examples of Service Dog tasks include:
- Retrieving Dropped Items
- Opening and Closing Doors
- Turning Lights On and Off
- Pulling Wheelchair Up a Slope
- Waking Someone With PTSD From a Nightmare
- Licking a Seizing Person to Help End the Seizure Via Tactile Stimulation
- Burrowing Under the Legs of a Person With POTS to Help Raise Their Blood Pressure
- Alerting a Diabetic to Dangerous Shifts in Blood Sugar
- Bracing an Unsteady or Unbalanced Handler
5. Service Dog Handlers May Not Be Visibly Disabled
Lots of disabilities aren’t visible, including neurological disorders, psychiatric illnesses, diabetes and hearing loss. A person partnered with a Service Dog who doesn’t appear to have a visible disability still has a right to their Service Dog, and to not be questioned about their private medical history or diagnoses. A common question asked of people with invisible disabilities is “Are you training her for someone?” If the answer is, “No, she’s for me,” then it’s polite to not inquire further unless the handler clearly welcomes additional inquiries or offers additional information.
6. Service Dogs Aren’t Allowed “Everywhere”
Legally, Service Dogs don’t have public access rights. Their handler, who must have a disability in order to be partnered with a Service Dog, has the right to access “places of public accommodation” with their Service Dog. There is a difference — it’s the person with rights, not the dog. The person has the right to not be discriminated against based on the fact they have a Service Dog. However, having a Service Dog does not magically grant a handler access to places where members of the public aren’t allowed. Exceptions to “everywhere” include churches and other places of worship, private/exclusive clubs, certain areas of zoos, aquariums and refuges where the dog’s presence could cause danger or stress to the animals within, and places where other people can be excluded, like MRI rooms and radiology, sterile laboratories or factory floors, and the ICU, cardiac and burn units.
7. Service Dog Handlers Can Only Be Asked Two Questions
When in a business or place of public accommodation, if it isn’t readily apparent that a dog is a Service Dog, the employees or person in charge may only ask two questions of the team:
- Is the animal required because of a disability? (This often takes the form of “Is that a Service Dog?”)
- What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform? (This often takes the form of “What does the dog do for you?”)
8. Service Dogs Aren’t Required To Wear Gear
In the United States, there is no required gear for Service Dogs. A Service Dog is a Service Dog regardless of what they are or are not wearing, and their handlers possess the exact same access rights with or without their dog in gear. Vests, harnesses and jackets are very commonly seen on working Service Dog teams, but by law, the dog isn’t required to wear anything in order to work in public.
9. Service Dogs Aren’t Required To Have “Paperwork”
There is no required documentation, registration, certification or paperwork required in order for a dog to be a Service Dog. All of the above is strictly optional, and while offered by many Service Dog programs, it is not necessary by law. A Service Dog team does not have to provide proof of Service Dog status. If their legitimacy is in doubt, the dog’s outstanding behavior and obvious training, combined with the handler’s answers to the questions “Is that a Service Animal?” and “What tasks is your Service Animal trained to perform for you?” should solve the access challenge promptly.
10. Service Dogs Should Have Excellent Manners and Obvious Training
Service Dogs in public should never be obtrusive, rude, disorderly or out of control. In fact, if a dog is any of the above, and the handler is not taking appropriate action to rectify the issue, the business or place of public accommodation may ask the handler to remove the dog and return for services alone. People with a disability have a right to have their Service Dog with them, but businesses and other places where Service Dogs are allowed have a right to not have their day to day operations interrupted by a dog who isn’t ready or who shouldn’t be working in public.