Service Dogs

This is in regards to Service Dogs in the United States. Different countries have different laws and regulations when it comes to Service Dogs

Rowdy is a Standard Dauchshund (35lbs) Psychiatric Service Dog

Service Dog Basics

Service dogs go through fairly vigorous training, they need to be the top of their game in order to help their handlers. When starting from a puppy this means an average of 18 -24 months of consistent training towards the goal of working. Hours of dedicated training not only in obedience but specialized tasks to mitigate their handler’s disabilities.

A Service Dog needs to be stable, quiet, and confident. They need to be able to maneuver through crowded areas without greeting the people passed, even when touched by a stranger. They need to be able to go to a restaurant or grocery store without sniffing at the food*, begging or trying to lick, or attempt to taste the food. (*There are some tasks that may require a dog to smell toward food to detect certain allergens; however, these are carefully trained scent detection tasks, not the dog just smelling something at random.)

A Service Dog should be able to work around other dogs, children, people, loud noises, sudden movements and so much more without barking, lunging, pulling, etc. The dog should be under the control of the handler at all time regardless of the environment, and should not be greeting random people or going up to anyone who is not the handler.

Not all dogs can be a Service Dog. Service Dogs need to meet a particular standard as far as training, personality, temperament, and drive. Different breeds do best with different jobs, not every breed (nor every dog within specific breeds) are compatible with the training and environment involved in Service Dog training and being successful doing it.

Below is a chart explaining the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals/Dogs.

The reality of having a Service Dog

A lot of people get the misconception that “it must be so nice” to bring a dog with us wherever we go. How nice it is not to leave our furry companion at home when we go out. How much of a joy it is to be able to have our dogs with us.

                Its not. Yes, there are many times that we love having our dogs with us, but that is not always the case and many Service Dog handlers would prefer NOT to have a NEED for their Service Dog. Most, if not all, Service Dog handlers would much prefer be healthy, than to have a Service Dog.

Imagine you just finished a stressful day of work, you realize you still need to go to the store to do your shopping. You are tired and your disability is not fairing the best for you that day. This can be anything from pain to glucose levels fluctuating or even seizures.  Now, after assessing your disability today, you still have to get your shopping done. Imagine for a moment how much self awareness you would need to assess these things, Service Dog handlers deal with these issues and many more on a daily basis.

For the average person who is having a rough day, they can stop at the store and quickly go in, get there things and leave without much issue. Simple in and out. Lets say this quick shopping experience is a total of 15 minutes from entering the store to leaving the store, after all you are in a rush and don’t want to be there.

We will negate the extra time it takes to gear up a Service Dog, today you were lucky enough to have our gear already on for the day -or you decided to work your dog with only a leash and collar “naked”- so the amount of time to prepare is cut down some.

You enter the store, the greeter doesn’t ask the questions about your dog so you continue to go to do your shopping. You get your cart, not feeling well because of the day and the symptoms of your disability being high today. You are immediately greeted by several random people that you pass, and a store employee: “What a beautiful dog!” “Wow, your dog is lovely” “Oh look! A dog! Hi sweetie!” and you are forced to smile at these people and nod, at the very least, because if you don’t you the person will repeat the same thing five times. This repetition is only if you are lucky; if you aren’t the person may assume you are being rude, didn’t hear them or they may confront you. Some Service Dog handlers have been greeted with aggression and , in some cases, violence for not allowing someone to interact with their dog, or even for not responding when spoken to. Lets say, today you force a smile, nod and try to continue shopping.

Someone comes up and tries to strike up a conversation with you, “Oh your dog is beautiful, what kind is he?” You try to be polite, not feeling up for conversation, but answer with a quick breed name and go to move away. “Oh wow! I have a xyz at home” or “oh whats he trained to do?” or “are you training him?” the list goes on and now you are caught in a conversation that you don’t have the time or energy for, or are forced to be rude so that you can just continue your shopping. 2 other people come up and ask if they can pet your dog, or try to pet your dog without permission, approach and talk to the dog, cooing and aweing “you are such a good boy, aren’t you.” They aren’t talking to you, just your dog.

Your outing went from 15 minutes to 30 minutes just from being forced into social obligations that you didn’t want.

This is a good experience on a bad day, for those of us who have Service Dogs.

Remus, Pomeranian, Medical alert & response

A bad experience on a bad day, can also include being confronted with access issues by a store employee who demands to see an ID card (which are not required in the US) and having to get the police involved or completely leaving the store without having to shop. Being aggressively confronted by a store employee or owner who refuse to acknowledge any type of Service Dog laws and refuse access and potentially having to get the police involved or having to leave the store without being able to get your shopping done.  

People getting upset, offended, even aggressive when we ask them not to distract or pet your Service Dog People calling to, or talking to, your Service Dog while working causing him to be distracted and missing a non-verbal cue, such as certain ticks or chemical changes, meaning that your dog did not do their job; in minor cases your anxiety may flair up and make breathing difficult, cause you to be dizzy etc but in some cases a Service Dog missing his cue could mean a life threatening situations such as not catching a fluctuation in blood pressure, glucose or even not giving the handler enough time to prepare for a seizure making injury very likely. A missed cue, can be life threatening.

Your outing went 15 minutes to potentially over an hour on a bad day with many negative experiences.

A very serious situation that handlers can encounter, and almost all handlers fear, on their outings is encountering a pet that has been brought into the store that lunges and attacks your Service Dog. As the use of Service Dogs becomes more recognized it also encourages those without disabilities to bring their pets into non-pet friendly establishments with little to no regard on what that actually means for those who do require Service Dogs in order to function normally. Bringing a pet into an establishment that is not pet friendly can not only be a danger to people, but also to actual Service Dogs. This also includes Emotional Support Animals, who have no public access rights.

Note: If there is an attack on your Service Dog you may face what many Service Dog handlers not only fear but face. The reality is that sometimes a dog won’t recover fully from an attack, either physically or psychologically. These dogs may have to be retired early, after hundreds of hours of training and typically several thousand dollars invested in training alone -not including the cost of the actual dog. Then having to start from scratch once more. Not to mention the emotional/psychological damage that can happen to the handler for having to potentially rehome their now retired Service Dog so that they are able to afford (either by time, energy or money) to get and train and brand new life line.

Daenerys is a Dobermann who is a
Psychiatric Response Service Dog

Service Dog Facts

  • Not all disabilities are visible
    • Some disabilities are invisible, meaning that the individual has a disability that cannot be readily seen and can appear to not have “anything wrong with them”. This does not make the disability any less real, or the Service Dog any less needed.
    • A handler does not have to be blind, in a wheelchair, have an obvious prosthetic, etc to be disabled.
  • Emotional Support/Comfort is not a task
    • Your dog keeping your company, making you feel good, bringing you comfort is not a task, and if this is the only thing your dog does for you your dog is not a Service Dog.
  • There is no registry in the US for Service Dogs
    • There are hundreds of websites who will send you a letter, a vest and an ID card claiming to be a Service Dog registry, these are all scams.
    • The ID cards make it more difficult for actual handlers to go into establishments because uneducated employees expect this to be the norm and required of Service Dogs, when in reality it is not and is very frowned upon use in the Service Dog community.
    • There is no official registry for Service Dogs in the United States.
  • Service Dogs do not need to be marked or in vest
    • Contrary to popular belief, a Service Dog does not need to wear a vest or anything obviously marked. Many Service Dog handlers prefer to have their dogs marked/vested etc but it is not necessary.
    • There is no specific vest for specific disabilities. A red vest does not mean one thing and a green vest mean another. A Service Dog may have many different types of vests, patches, and harnesses, as well as bandanas, collars and leash wraps. This is 100% a personal preference of the handler.
  • Businesses have rights too
    • A business DOES have rights as well. A business can ask a handler to remove their Service Dog from the establishment if the dog is disrupting business.
      • Examples of a dog disrupting business is: going to the bathroom in the store/not housebroken, barking, showing any aggressive behavior, jumping on people, not being under control of their handler, etc
      • Even fully trained Service Dogs can have off days and be asked to leave the establishment
    • A business can ask TWO questions:
      • Is that a Service Dog?
      • What tasks is your dog trained to do?
        • Handlers are not required to disclose their disability to anyone except their doctor.
  • Some places are not required to allow your Service Dog
    • Any private place that is not open to the public can legally deny access
    • Churches are not required to allow access of Service Dogs
    • (Feel free to contact me to add more to this section on what is not covered by the ADA for access)
  • Service Dogs are not robots
    • Service Dogs can make mistakes and can have bad days. There are some days that a Service Dog may be too overwhelmed in a situations that they usually would be fine with, or a day where they just aren’t focused.
    • A Service Dog is a dog. Sometimes they get sick, don’t feel well, and have bad days. As long as this is not a regular occurrence, the dog may just need a day off or a step back in training to regroup. This does not make the dog any less than a Service Dog.
  • A Service Dog is only a Service Dog if it is trained and the handler is disabiled
    • A Service Dog must be trained, not only in obedience but also in having at least one task that helps mitigate a disability. At least two tasks if one is Pressure Therapy, Grounding, and similar commands.
    • A handler must have a disability that is mitigated by the trained tasks of the Service Dog.
    • Without both of these, the dog is not a Service Dog.
      • A Dog who is trained in obedience and tasks, but not handled by someone with a disability, is just a well trained companion dog.
      • A disabled handler who has a dog that is not trained in obedience and tasks, is a companion dog or an Emotional Support Dog.
      • Neither of the above have public access rights. Neither of the above are Service Dogs.
  • A Service Dog can be any breed or size
    • Where the “Fab Four” are the most common breeds used for Service Dogs, and with good reason, that other breeds cannot also be used.
      • The “Fab Four” are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles and Smooth Coated Collies
    • Many breeds and sizes of dogs can be a Service Dog, the key is that the temperament, drive, trainability and compatibility with the tasks needed match up nicely.
    • While a Labrador or Golden Retriever are great overall for many different disabilities and tasks, a well trained and temperament tested Chihuahua, Poodle, Husky, various Bull-type breed (often mistaken for Pitbulls), and even Mastiffs can be used for Service Dog work if they can complete training and are suitable for the job they are being trained for.
  • Service Dogs can be colorful
    • There are many Service Dog handlers who opt to dye or color their dogs with pet safe products. This is not an indication of a “fake” Service Dog.
    • Dying Service Dogs is becoming more popular as a form of expression and bonding, to make the dog more noticeable for safety, as well as a theft deterrent.
      • In areas where pet/dog theft is high many handlers have opted to dye the tail, ears or even their whole Service Dog, as a means to make their dog easily identifiable if theft was ever to happen.
      • Many Service Dog handlers also opt to dye their dogs tails as a way to make their tail more noticeable to prevent it being stepped on and to help prevent potential injury.
A Minature Poodle Medical Alert Service Dog, showing off her pink coat

What Service Dogs Handlers want you to know

  • Not all disabilities are visible    
    • Some disabilities are invisible, meaning that the individual has a disability that cannot be readily seen and can appear to not have “anything wrong with them”. This does not make the disability any less real, or the Service Dog any less needed.
    • A handler does not have to be blind, in a wheelchair, have an obvious prosthetic, etc to be disabled.
  • PTSD is not just for our Service Members
    • PTSD is not just for Service Members, please do not discredit someone’s personal experiences because they do not look like or are not a Service Member or Former Service Member.
  • Younger people can also be disabled
    • There is no age range for a disability. Just because someone seems young, doesn’t mean that they are not disabled and need their Service Dog.
  • Our disabilities are not public information
    • It is very rude and inconsiderate to ask, let alone demand, someone tell you their disability.
    • This would be the equivalent of asking a complete stranger on the street how his prostate is doing, or how her last pap smear was.
    • It is not the public’s business, medical information is private and should be between an individual and their doctor.
  • We don’t always have time to converse/answer questions
    • We don’t bring our dogs with us because we want to, we need to.
    • We don’t always have time to stop for every single person who stops us and have a conversation about our dog, their dog, other dogs.
    • We don’t always want to stop what we are doing for every single person who stops us and have a conversation about our dog, their dog, other dogs.
    • Please keep in mind that we get stopped multiple times every time we leave the house and its always for/with basically the same conversation and topic. It gets tiring, and frustrating, especially since often times we just want to go about our day.
    • It is rude to interrupt someone to ask about our dog. Many times we may be having a conversation with someone, or enjoying our day out and be interrupted by probing questions, compliments and overall interruptions from what we were doing.
    • Keep in mind that that one comment, or one conversation, has likely been said/had multiple times before and will happen multiple times after each person for that single outing.
      • So while yes, a comment or conversation may only take 2-5 minutes, multiple that by 10 times that you have to stop to have the same conversation and comments exchanged and now you have added 20-50minutes to an outing that is  just talking to random people rather than enjoying an outing or getting a chore complete. Sometimes taking away from a chore that has time restraints.
  • Our dogs are not here for you or your children
    • Just because there is a dog in a place that dogs aren’t normally -such as restaurants, amusement parks, shopping centers- does not mean they are there for you or your children.
    • The dogs in these places have a job to do, and need to focus to do them. This means that you and your children cannot, typically, interact with these dogs.
    • Please teach your children to only look at Service Dogs or discuss seeing them with you.
    • Please teach your children that it is not acceptable to touch, chase, call to, or even bark at our dogs. They need to focus on their handlers.
    • As with all dogs you should not run up to, grab, pull, pet, attempt to play with an unknown dog.
  • Do not interact with our dogs without permission
    • As with all dogs you should not run up to, grab, pull, pet, attempt to play with an unknown dog. Yes, Service Dogs are trained to be calm and collected, they are cute and in a place that pets aren’t allowed but that does not mean that you can pet, grab, play with, call over, etc without asking for permission and getting permission.
    • Do not be offended when a handler tells you no, or asks you not to distract their dog, their dog’s focus on them and doing the job it was trained to do can literally mean life or death for some handlers.
    • Depending on your area your interference with a Service Dog may come with legal consequences such as a misdemeanor, heavy fines and depending on the actual crime jail time.
  • Please don’t be offended if we don’t respond
    • Sometimes we are focused on our dog, on the thing we are doing, on managing our disability and we don’t always register when you call out to us. This means that we may not respond to you calling out “nice dog”, “beautiful dog”, “what kind of dog?” etc.
    • Sometimes the comments get lost in the static; this means that we hear the same comments so often sometimes we just tune them out over time.
    • Some handlers are deaf or hard of hearing and may genuinely not hear you.
    • Most of the time, we are not blatantly ignoring you. Take it with a grain of salt and just move on with your day, please.
    • Do not confront us for not hearing you. You don’t know what the situation is, and we are not obligated to respond to you just because we have a dog with us.
  • We want you to ignore the dog
    • Do not talk to us through our dog such as “and what kind of work do you do?” “what kind of dog are you?” so forth. Our dogs cannot answer you. Please talk to us not the dog.
    • Do not make a big deal of seeing a Service Dog. We have our dogs to help us do our best to live a normal life. A Service Dog was a better “tool” for us, as individuals, than other medical equipment. We just want to go through our day.
    • Please ignore our dog. We know s/he is cute and we love our dogs but we just want to get our chores done, enjoy our outing, enjoy our meal. Please let us.
  • No, s/he is not miserable.
    • A Service Dog typically loves to work, they live for it. They get excited when they see their gear, they enjoy completing commands and successfully preforming tasks to help us. A dog with a job is often more stable, confident and happy than your average dog.
    • A Service Dog may not always have their tail wagging, or have their ears perked and super alert. They are trained to be calm and relaxed while working, alert but not over excited or aroused by their environment. This means the dog is calm and focused on their job, not that they are unhappy.
    • No, they are not always on the job. Service Dogs have plenty of time “off duty” where they get to act like a dog, play, have fun and relax. They do not always have to work, and you cannot force a Service Dog to work if they do not want to. In fact, most Service Dogs want to work even when they are off duty. They prefer working with their handlers more than they do enjoy other “free time” activities.
Bear is a Bull breed mix and is a PTSD Service Dog

How to get your very own Service Dog

After reading all of this, you may have a new understanding of Service Dogs and how to handle seeing a Service Dog out in public. You may also still be wondering how to get a Service Dog of your own.

This is between you and your Doctor/health care professional. No one on a public forum will be able to tell you whether you qualify as disabled.

First, you must be considered disabled.

“The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability.”

Next, you must understand that Service Dogs are not an acceptable form of treatment for all disabilities. Some disabilities would not benefit from having a Service Dog, and some disabilities may even be made worse by having a Service Dog. Many psychological disorders/disabilities are not a good match when it comes to considering a Service Dog, and many of these disorders/disabilities may not only increase your symptoms and make your disability more difficult to live with but also may be dangerous to your dog. Both need to be considered when assessing whether a Service Dog may be right for you.

It is not as simple as putting a vest on your pet and going to the store. Your dog needs to be able to pass a temperament test, have solid obedience and leash manners even under high distractions. This includes being calm and obedient around dogs, children, people, weird noises, loud noises, around food, around dropped food, costumes and so much more. Your dog must also learn how to successfully preform different tasks to help mitigate your disability under high distractions, and day to day life. Please keep in mind that comfort, cuddling, etc is not a task.

Not all dogs are suitable for the strenuous training and work of being a Service Dog, some handlers may need to wash* multiple prospects before finding a dog who can meet their needs.

The term “wash” is used to describe the action of retiring a Service Dog, prospect or Service Dog in Training due to not being able to do the job. This could be anything from the dog having a lack of drive, the dog not enjoying the work, the dog developing a behavior that is not suitable for Service Dog work, the dog having an injury, discovering the dog has a physical disability or is not in the best health, or any other reason that may make a dog unsuitable for the job they are needed to preform. This does not mean that the dog is a “bad” dog, just that they would do better at a different job or as a pet rather than a working dog.

Again, the Service Dog registries online are a scam. There is no registry in the United States for Service Dogs, and you are not required to have an ID card for your Service Dog. In fact, most people in the Service Dog community frown upon these cards because they can make public access much more difficult for actual Service Dog handlers who know the laws and do not have an ID card.

When in doubt, speak to a Dog Trainer who is experienced with Service Dogs and understands Service Dog laws.

It is also important to note, again, that even a fully trained Service Dog may be asked to leave an establishment if they are disrupting business, showing aggression, not under control of the handler or if they have use the restroom in the establishment. Businesses also have rights, and Service Dogs also have bad days. If your dog does any of the above, the business can legally ask you to remove your dog from the establishment.

Gambit an Old English Sheepdog trained as a Psychiatric Service Dog, sporting his usual blue coat
Gambit experiencing a Renaissance Faire and hanging out with a bunch of people in Fur Suits.
A Service Dog should be able to remain calm and able to work in even the most obscure settings.

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