Six facts everyone needs to know about service dogs


Service dogs are wonderfully smart, very well trained, have a very serious job and are obviously adorable

By Courtney Verrill

Christina Gardner’s service dog, Moxie, watches her while she plays during a sled hockey game. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)

Providing independence, freedom, peace of mind and friendship is just a few things service animals offer. Living with a disability can be tough, but thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities can obtain a service animal to have with them at all times to help with any tasks they are trained for. Service animals are defined by the ADA as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Some examples of their tasks include guiding the visually impaired, alerting people who are hearing impaired, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medications, and many other services.

Service dogs are very well trained and equipped to help with a number of different tasks. For example, Christine Gardner, a U.S. Army veteran and double amputee, has had her Golden Retriever service dog Moxie for almost seven years. Moxie’s most crucial job is for seizure alert and response when it comes to Gardner’s grand mal seizures. Moxie is trained to get help when Gardner is experiencing a seizure – she can go to a neighbor’s house and ring the doorbell as well as dial 911 on her home phone. She can also detect Gardner’s seizures before they happen and warn her to lay down so she doesn’t collapse and get hurt. For Gardner, her life depends on Moxie.

With such a high intensity job, there are many facts that everyone – not just owners – need to understand about service dogs.

Despite how cute they are, you should not pet them or talk to them when they are working

This is the most important thing everyone needs to understand when it comes to service dogs. Just like us humans, service dogs have a job to do. Petting and talking to them can take away from their work.

“I wish people really understood not to pet service dogs since it distracts them from their work and my livelihood depends on her,” says Gardner. “I don’t mind when people politely ask to pet her, but when they just walk up at a time when I know I need her to be on her A-game, that’s a problem.”

When you pet a service dog without permission from their owner, it distracts them and they could miss something important. Like Gardner, many owner’s lives are in the hands of their service dog, and if distracted for just one second the dog can miss an important signal, which could lead to injury or worse.

Christina Gardner warms up before a sled hockey game with her service dog, Moxie. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)

Putting a vest on them is optional, so some may not be wearing a vest

Putting a vest on your service dog is not required, although many people still choose to do so. Sometimes they wear a special harness instead that indicates they are a service dog. If a service dog is not wearing a vest, it doesn’t make them any less of a service dog. A true service dog will still act as if they are on the job and be very well behaved even when not wearing their uniform. While they don’t have to wear a special vest, the ADA requires that they must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless these devices interfere with the service dog’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices.

Service dogs are allowed access anywhere, unless they are being disruptive

Despite what people may think, service dogs are allowed anywhere at any time. Under the laws of the ADA, public places, businesses and any other place that serves the public must allow service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go – for example, service dogs are allowed in hospital areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias or examination rooms, but not operating rooms or burn units where the dog’s presence could interfere with a sterile environment. If a service dog is barking or being disruptive, the facility is allowed to reject them, although service dogs have to be specifically trained to behave in public so the chances of a service dog being disruptive is slim.

“If a dog is barking through a store, the store has the right to ask them to leave,” Gardner says. “Chances are [if it’s being disruptive] it’s not a real service dog and gives service dogs a bad name.”

While asking a service dog who is being disruptive to leave is appropriate, rejecting a dog due to allergies or fear of dogs are not valid reasons for not allowing them into facilities.

A service dog’s need is just as private as medical information

A person with a service dog is not required to inform people about their disability. Under the laws of the ADA, staff may ask two questions – is the dog a service animal because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. They are unable to ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation or I.D. card for the dog, or ask the dog to demonstrate its ability to perform any tasks.

Service dogs can be any breed

While Golden Retrievers were made to be service dogs, not every service dog is a Golden Retriever. The most commonly seen breeds for service dogs are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds, but that doesn’t mean all service dogs are one of those breeds. Any breed can be a service dog as long as it has the proper temperament, good health and physical capability to do the job their person needs them to perform.

Saying you wish you had a service dog, or you wish you could make your dog a service dog, isn’t something you should say to an owner

“[I wish people] would stop asking ‘where can I buy a vest for my dog?’,” says Gardner.

While owners love and respect their service dogs, they have them because of a disability and not just for fun. Most people who ask this question are fishing for information so they can take their pets anywhere with them.

“Fake service dogs, especially those marked as service dogs yet not trained properly and not well-behaved, make creditability and access difficult for real service dogs and can pose a threat to our health and the health of our dogs,” says Gardner.

Service dogs are very special to their owners for many reasons. They are loved and respected very much. While they spend a majority of their time working, service dogs do get treats, play around and are very well taken care of.

If you are in need of a service dog, you can get apply to get paired with one through Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is a non-profit organization that offers service animals free of charge to a person with a disability.

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