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7 Things You Might Not Have Known About Service Dogs

The Truth About Common Misconceptions

My little service dog with her red vest. 

At first glance, my dog Lily just looks like a scruffy little mutt. But she’s actually a service dog. I have autism, and she helps me with anxiety when out in public. One day as I entered a store with my aunt and my dog, a man walked by. He frowned and said, “That’s not a service dog!” He then went and got the manager of the store.

The topic of service dogs has become a hot topic that seems to anger many people. Now, people tend to assume that every service dog is a “fake service dog,” and that it is their civic duty to call the handler out in public. This causes a lot of inconvenience and embarrassment to people with legitimate disabilities who are out with their animals. I thought I’d make an attempt to clear up a few misconceptions that I have heard.

1. Only a judge can decide if a person requires a service dog.

Not true! There are no judges involved here! If a person has a disability of some sort, it will be diagnosed by a doctor or other professional. The doctor or professional may help the person decide if a service animal could benefit them, but it is ultimately a personal decision.

2. Service dogs must be registered.

Not really. While “registered service dog” seems to be a popular phrase, and one that suggests that the dog is legitimate, there is no official registration system for service dogs. Some organizations that select and train service dogs may have their own certification system and registry, but it is not required. In fact, if you Google “registered service dog,” almost every result you find on the page is a business that is trying to convince people that they can make their dog a “registered service dog” by paying money. Let me state this again. Not only are people with service dogs not required to register their service dogs somewhere, but the fact that a dog is registered through one of these businesses does not in any way make them an actual service dog.

3. Service dogs must be trained through a special organization. In all circumstances, you must apply for, and be granted, a special service dog.

Again, not really. It depends on what services you need. Service dogs can perform many, many, many different tasks. They are very individualized. Some organizations and companies do specialize in training service dogs for specific tasks. For example, seeing eye dogs. A seeing eye dog needs very specific training and discipline. However, many people can train their own service dogs to perform the tasks they need, or enlist in the help of a private trainer of their own choosing. For instance, some service dogs are trained to open doors or bring items. Many dogs can be trained to do these tasks, without the very specialized selection and training process that a seeing eye dog goes through.

4. Service dogs must wear a vest or have some form of identification.

Nope. Many people choose to put a vest on their dog in order to avoid having to personally explain, everywhere they go, that their dog is a service dog. However, anyone can buy such a vest. The businesses I mentioned before are eager to sell special vests and identification cards that they promise will allow dogs into public places. The rule of thumb is that an employee at a public place is allowed to ask two questions: “Is this a service animal?” and “What tasks is he trained to perform for you?” They cannot ask the dog to perform the tasks right in front of them, or ask for other details about the person’s disability.

5. You can never, ever, ever, ever, ever pet a service dog.

Mostly true, but not always. For instance, part of my dog’s job is to help me in social situations. Her job is literally to let people pet her so that they will have a reason to initiate conversations with me. This can be the difference between me attending a social function and standing frozen in the corner for three hours, and me attending the same social function and participating fully. However, in many other situations, petting a service dog could distract them and create a dangerous situation. For example if a dog is supposed to be paying attention to signs that his human is going to have a seizure, but he is busy getting petted by a random passerby, he may not be able to do his job. The expert on the job of the individual service dog is the person with the disability. So, always ask if you can pet the dog. My dog even wears a patch that says, “I’m friendly, ask to pet me,” so that people know that they can pet her… but it is still always important to ask first.

6. Service dogs must always walk at a particular side of the person, a particular number of inches from their foot, and not look around at all.

Again, not always. My dog doesn’t have to do that. In fact, sometimes it is easier for me to just carry her, because she is small and could get stepped on in busy places. However, that doesn’t mean service dogs can be acting like wild little puppies in a public place! A service dog should be calm, should never go to the bathroom indoors, and should never bite or attack a person or other animal.

7. It is your right and duty to confront people with fake service dogs.

No, it is actually not your duty, or even your business, unless you are an employee of the public place, or the service dog is doing something blatantly un-service dog-like, such as peeing on the floor or stealing your food. There are so many different ways that a service dog can help someone.

So, the next time you see a person in the store with their well-behaved dog, please just assume this is a service dog. Making angry faces, whispering about fake service dogs, or confronting the person, is most likely just going to ruin the day of someone with a disability who is trying to take care of their errands.

Keep in mind that, if the person does have a disability, confronting them may cause them more harm than you intended. On the day that the man walking by yelled that my dog wasn’t a service dog, it caused me so much anxiety that it was difficult for me to go into a store for a long time. That defeated the purpose of why I have a service dog in the first place. If the dog is creating a problem, you can discreetly speak to a store employee. Otherwise, just allow the person and dog to get on with their day! 

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