Dogs were bred to help humans--they were bred to hunt, herd, guard, pull carts, and assist people in many other ways. One very important job that dogs have continued to be bred and trained for is to assist people with disabilities in day to day life. There are a lot of misconceptions about service dogs and confusion between service dogs and emotional support animals. Here are some facts about service dogs that you may not know!
Ellis, a Labrador Retriever puppy, training for service work!
Let’s start with the definition of a service dog! First off, the ADA (American Disabilities Act) defines a service dog as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” These dogs can be trained by an organization or an individual, but the important thing is the task that they are taught must be “directly related to the person’s disability.” For example--if someone has seizures, a dog can be tasked to alert the person that a seizure is imminent.
Snickers accompanying his handler to a public outing. He is vested in this photo, but service dogs are not always vested!
There is no official certification for service dogs. Under section Q17, service dogs do not require documentation and there is no specified or required certification to prove that your service dog is “legitimate.” So any website that claims you can pay a certain amount and have your dog “certified” as a service dog is a scam. Websites such as these are what gives legitimate service dogs a bad name, since they sell “certifications” to anyone. People who have pet dogs often purchase them so they can be excused from housing rules and breed restrictions.
There are only two questions you can legally ask the handler to determine whether or not their dog is a service dog. In Q7 of the ADA, it states that someone can ask 1) what task the dog performs for its handler and 2) if the service dog is required for a disability. Other than these two questions, staff of a store/restaurant/housing facility are not allowed to ask you more. They cannot ask what specific disability or for certification.
Often times service dogs and emotional support animals are used interchangeably, however, they are very different. Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide “therapeutic benefit” to a disabled person and must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. While service dogs are trained to perform a task “directly related to the person’s disability,” whereas emotional support animals provide comfort for their owners merely through their companionship and are not task trained. While emotional support animals are an exception to most housing rules, they are not granted access to public spaces like service dogs are. However, a lot of people choose to disregard this rule and fake ESAs so they can bring them wherever they want, which is illegal.
Service dogs can be any breed! They can be purebreds or mixed breeds! The ADA has no breed restrictions. Your service dog can be anything from a Golden Retriever to an all-American mutt. Keep in mind, certain breeds are more fit for certain service dog tasks. A lot of dogs will wash (fail) as service dogs, so it is important to set yourself up for success. A well-bred dog is often a good choice, as breeders do tons of temperament testing, health testing, and take genetics into consideration.
Labrador Retrievers make great service dogs, and many organizations (such as The Seeing Eye) use them.
Mars, a Beauceron puppy, training for service work. Beaucerons are typically not recommended as service dogs!
Snickers is an All-American Mutt! Service dogs can be any breed!
Service dogs should not be disturbed while they are on the job. Although it is hard to resist a cute dog it is imperative not to disturb a service dog while it is working! You can disturb a service dog from its work in many ways such as: petting, gesturing, whistling, and basically anything that takes its attention off of its handler. For a lot of service dog handlers, their lives depend on their dogs tasking correctly. For example, if a service dog is distracted while its handler has a seizure, the handler could fall and get seriously hurt. Please do not disturb working service dogs!
Many people with disabilities can (and have!) lived without service dogs, but service dogs greatly improve their quality of life and allows them to do many things that may have been out of their scope. Due to the many misconceptions that surround service dogs, there are a lot of people trying to pass off fraudulent service dogs. This is incredibly dangerous, because if a fraudulent service dog isn’t properly trained or socialized they can give true service dogs a bad name. For example, service dogs are expected to under control. If fraudulent service dogs become a nuisance in public and can cause true service dogs and their handlers to be turned away from public spaces or denied housing. Fraudulent service dogs have also attacked legitimate service dogs, which can lead to death or career ending injuries. It is very important people understand that just because a dog has a “certification” or a special harness on (anyone can go online and buy a vest and patches!), it is not a service dog. If you do see a true service dog, please respect them and their handler.