In general people understand the concept of a service dog. If you’re only ever heard of service dogs, you probably imagine a dog, most likely a Golden Retriever or German Shepherd Dog, wearing a vest and guide handle, guiding a blind man through busy intersections in New York City. While this image is most likely applicable to some service dog handlers, it certainly is not a depiction of all handlers.
Service dogs and their handlers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and disabilities. This is why ILRDB is proud to presentTen Things People Believe About Service Dogs (That Simply Are Not True).
1) Service dogs are legally required to be registered in the United States
Possibly the most common misconception about service dogs is that registration or licensing is required by law. There are a number of registration companies that provide a place for handlers to pay to register their dogs. These companies are for-profit and registering with them is both optional and strongly discouraged by many service dog handlers.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, while it is not illegal to provide documentation, it is illegal for businesses to request documentation for a handler to gain access to a facility. “Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.” (ADA)
The important distinction here is that a handler may provide documentation if they choose to do so, but businesses are not supposed to expect it. Therefore the registries that provide documentation for a nominal fee to service dog handlers are not technically breaking the law. However, they are making things more difficult for other service dog handlers.
If Handler A walks into a business with his service dog and presents identification in the form of a certificate from a for-profit registry, the business might expect the same behavior from Handler B when she visits with her service dog. The event that inevitably follows is what handlers call an “access challenge”. This is when a business breaks the law and refuses access to a handler because they are using a service dog. Under the ADA, federal law, this is discrimination. As service dog handlers are well aware, however, there are many businesses that remain ignorant of the law. While we do our best to educate those businesses, trying to explain why the first handler they saw presented registration while we do not have registration is a long stressful process that could have been prevented.
It is important to mention that there are proponents of requiring identification or registration. This is discrimination. If able-bodied persons are permitted to gain access to a facility without identifying themselves, disabled handlers should be afforded the same privilege.
2) Service dogs are required to wear a vest
Similar to the registration, service dogs are not required to wear a vest while they are working. The only requirement is that they are harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless any of those devices prevents the dog from performing its task.
“Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.” (ADA)
It is important to note that handlers who choose to work their dog without a vest may have a very good reason for doing so. The vest could interfere with the dog’s task, it might be too hot out for the dog to wear a vest, or the handler may have lost or forgotten the vest.
Since it is the dog, and not the vest, that performs the task to mitigate the handler’s disability, the vest is simply considered a courtesy to inform the general public that a dog is a service dog. Therefore a business cannot ask a handler to leave because they have failed to mark their dog as a service dog.
So the next logical question is, what can a business do to make sure the dog in their store is a service dog? The ADA addresses this as well.
“When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions:
(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and
(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.”
The two questions signify a verbal agreement between the business owner and the handler that the dog is, in fact, a service dog. Furthermore, if a dog is being disruptive and its handler makes little to no attempt to bring their dog under control, the ADA states that the business may ask that person to leave the facility.
3) All service dogs are trained and sold by a specialized training program.
Another common misconception about service dogs is that anyone with a service dog is training it for a program. The general public might arrive at this conclusion if a handler is not obviously disabled.
The ADA makes absolutely no stipulations about who trains a service dog. The concept of owner training is growing in popularity as more people realize the benefit of having a service dog. Because a service dog from a program can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, many handlers turn to private trainers and dog training books to produce their own service dog.
When you see a service dog in public, even if the handler looks healthy, this does not necessarily mean the dog is being trained for a program. Many handlers prefer to mark dogs that are in training as such. If it is not obvious, don’t assume that the dog is not assisting the handler. Remember that some disabilities are invisible!
4) Service dogs never make mistakes.
I see this conversation happen far too often, and it usually starts with somebody who believes that service dogs are infallible.
My service dog is very well trained, but no amount of training can prevent an event like the time he vomited in a grocery store. Anyone who works with the general public will tell you that people have accidents. Dogs do as well. While we would like to always have control over our bodies, that isn’t actually the case.
Service dogs can have accidents for a number of reasons. The accident may involve a bodily function that is barely voluntary, such as diarrhea or vomiting, or it might appear as a lapse in training: a dog that barks once or twice while working, or tries to greet somebody that doesn’t want to be greeted.
The ADA addresses situations like this, stating that “a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken.” (ADA)
This means that mistakes are acceptable so long as the handler is able to bring the dog back under control.
5) Service dogs never get to play.
This just isn’t true. Off-duty service dogs act like normal dogs.
6) Service dogs can only be a certain breed.
While most people associate Goldens, Labs, and Shepherds with service dogs, the truth is that the ADA places no restriction on a service dog’s breed. Anything from a Chihuahua, to a Great Dane, to a Pit Bull, to a Poodle can be a service dog.
This is rather controversial for some breeds such as the Caucasian Ovcharka and other livestock guardian breeds because of their protective nature. However, there are always exceptions. Evaluating the temperament of an individual dog is much more important than evaluating the breed as a whole when considering that dog for service dog work.
An important note about small dogs: Not many people are aware that small dogs can be service dogs too! Service dogs can work to mitigate all types of disabilities- there is no rule about how big or small a service dog can be as long as that dog has a trained task!
7) Service dogs are always rehomed when they retire.
To be completely fair, this point is not wrong. Some service dogs are rehomed when they retire.
While this may seem cruel for a dog to be given up after working with their handler for so many years, handlers are forced to make this decision for a number of reasons.
The most obvious reason is disability. Some handlers are not able to care for more than one dog at a time, so the space they have in their life for a dog must be reserved for an active service dog.
However, there is also the issue of housing. The FHA permits a handler to have a service dog in housing that is not pet friendly, but a retired service dog would not qualify under the FHA. Therefore the handler, for whom moving might not be an option, is forced to give up their service dog when they retire.
Finances are another concern. Dogs are expensive and, as a general rule, people living on disability are not rolling in money. For this reason, it is often more humane to rehome the dog as it ages so that somebody who does have the funds required to properly care for the aging dog can do so.
It is important to note that this is NOT applicable to all service dogs. Many handlers opt to keep their retired service dogs because they have grown very attached to them. Those who are able to do so are very fortunate to be in a position to make that decision.
All of that being said, please don’t feel sorry for the service dogs that are rehomed! There is actually quite a demand for older well-trained dogs, and many families are more than happy to love and cherish a retired service dog through its senior years.
8) A service dog is an invitation to ask about a person’s disability.
Having a service dog is NOT an invitation to ask a handler about their disability.
Mention this one, and you are sure to hear the groan from service dog handlers around the world.
Regardless of where you are or what you are doing, if you have a service dog with you, you can almost expect this conversation to come up at some point during your day:
Them: “Oh, is that a service dog? He’s so cute!”
You: “Thank you.”
Them: “What does he do?”
You: “He helps me with my disability.”
Them: “Oh…what’s wrong with you?”
Here is one of the most important messages that I want absolutely everyone who reads this to hear: Unless you are a doctor or judge, it is NEVER okay to ask about a stranger’s disability. Can you imagine walking up to somebody in a wheelchair and asking them why they can’t walk? No? The same rule applies to service dog handlers.
I know this question stems from the fact that many people are ignorant of what tasks service dogs can perform for somebody who appears to be physically well. These tasks can range from seizure detection, alerting to dissociative or manic states, mitigating symptoms of PTSD or anxiety through the utilization of blocking or deep pressure therapy, and so on and so forth. The possibilities are too many to list. Just understand that a person’s disability might not be obvious and it is never okay to ask them about it.
9) Some disabled people are more deserving of service dogs than others.
While not all disabilities are created equal, only a handler knows how much their disability affects their lifestyle.
The only person who can tell a handler that they don’t deserve a service dog is a judge.
10) Service dog handlers should look sick.
As I have mentioned a few times, there are a variety of invisible disabilities that a person who appears healthy may have. Somebody who doesn’t look sick could very well be disabled.
It is best to not assume you know a person’s medical history simply by looking at them, and as I discussed in point number eight, asking about their medical problems is very rude. Accept that you aren’t going to know what is wrong with them and move on.
For more information on service dogs, please view the following links:
American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) on Service Dogs: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
Please Don’t Pet Me (information on buying or training a service dog as well as networking with other handlers): http://pleasedontpetme.com