September is National Service Dog month, and to help celebrate these highly trained “dogs with jobs,” it seems only fitting to discuss what a service dog is (and isn’t) and to elucidate the role of anyone who might find a service dog in their midst.
The first item that must be clarified is that service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy animals are not the same things. While support and therapy animals have important roles to fill, their rights under the law and their “jobs” are different. There are some provisions for service miniature horses, as well as for those animals whose functions are beyond that of companionship but are not registered as service dogs, but for the sake of clarity, this article only discusses service dogs. Service dogs have been extensively trained, sometimes for years, and are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Service dogs can always be identified by the “Service Dog” vest they wear while working. A dog on the job is providing service to its owner regarding any one of a number of serious medical conditions. Service dogs can be trained to assist in a variety of visible and invisible issues, ranging from blindness to PTSD and beyond. When a service dog is working, they are not to be approached or petted.
If a situation requires that you need to ask someone about their service dog, the law indicates you can only ask these specific questions:
1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? This should be fairly self-evident, since the dog will be wearing a vest, however, it is a starting point to get to the second question.
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Questions that are not allowed to be asked include any request for documentation for the dog, a request that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquiries about the nature of the person’s disability.
Although the laws give the owner and the animal the right to be in most situations, the Americans with Disabilities Act laws do not have the right to override safety measures that would be compromised if an animal were present, such as in an operating room, where hair/dander could cause serious harm. Otherwise, these highly trained canines can be anywhere the owner/handler is.
Service dogs can be trained to provide physical support such as guiding a visually impaired person safely through crowded streets, opening/closing doors, or turning lights off or on. They may also provide a person with certain cues to help them become aware of a situation. Trained dogs can detect when a seizure is about to occur, when someone’s blood sugar is too high or too low, or other signals that are invisible to a human, but indicative of a serious medical event.
Service dogs are to be considered just like any other piece of medical equipment, like an insulin pump or a wheelchair might be. They may look like your neighbor’s Labrador, but they are not there for fun, and the person who has the service dog depends on their dog for their life. If you see someone with a service animal, treat the owner as you would anyone else, but ignore the dog. The dog knows what it needs to do; your job is to let it do its job without interference.
The one instance where this is not true, however, is if a service dog approaches you, in its vest, without its owner. These dogs are trained to find someone to help their owner in the event that the owner needs immediate assistance. If a service dog in a vest ever approaches you without its owner, follow it. It needs your help with its owner and you may help save a life!
Even though they are highly skilled, specially trained animals, it doesn’t mean that service dogs are on the job 24/7 year-round. While service dogs are trained to be on the job while wearing their vest, when the vest is off, they’re just like any other dog. They want tummy rubs, games of fetch, and snuggle time. I was lucky enough to work in the vicinity of a service dog, and see it on a break, and it was one of the goofiest, most lovable dogs I’ve ever seen!
Understanding what to do in the presence of a service dog will go a long way toward making sure the owner of that dog is comfortable in the situation they’re in. We can all help celebrate our service dog friends by being conscious of their important role in our society, and treating them as valuable and respected members of it.
(Sarah Caton owns All Paws Pet Sitting, which serves all of Lincoln County.)