7 Things People Don’t Know About Service Dogs

The general public sees a dog in a vest and the thought never crosses their mind about why the dog is wearing it. Up until recently, most people assumed that every vested dog was a guide dog, and that was that. It’s better now. A little better, anyway. People are a lot more educated about service animals, but the majority still can’t tell you the difference between a service dog, an emotional support animal (ESA), and a therapy dog.

These are misconceptions I’ve noticed while researching, or when talking to people about Winnie.

1. Service Dogs and ESAs Are Two Separate Things-

Emotional Support Animals have been in the media a lot lately, and as usual, it’s been making everything more confusing than less. Let me clear it up right now, there is no such thing as Service Peacocks. This is because Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) are totally different things. Emotional support animals are for just that- emotional support. They help ease their owners’ anxieties and phobias, but they are not a psychiatric service animal. EAS’s are not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (the ADA), instead, they are covered by the FAA, if their owners are trying to bring them on planes, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), if their owner needs to live in a place where pets are not allowed. Planes and Housing are the only places where ESA’s have rights, and to get these rights, the owner needs a letter from a doctor, and sometimes extra paperwork. *note* individual airlines are starting to crack down on ESA’s in planes, which should spark some interesting discussions.

2. Getting a Dog Doesn’t Work the Way You Might Think-

The media would have you believe that there’s only one way to get a service animal. You realize you need help, you get in touch with a charity that trains cute little puppies into perfect service dogs that are delivered right to your door for free. You bond with the dog immediately, and all of your problems are solved. This is so not how the process works. For one, service dogs are almost never free. The average cost of a dog is $20,000. And if you do find a charity that gives away dogs, their scope is very narrow. Combat Veterans. Blind People. Autistic Children (but never adults). And regardless, there are waitlists. A two-year waitlist to even be assigned a dog, plus two years of training, you might not see your service dog for years. Because of all these factors, people sometimes decide to train their own dogs.

3. Some People Train Their Own Dogs Instead of Going Through a Service-

The law says that people have the right to train their service animals. This is a huge decision. Training a service dog is a lot of work, and as someone with a disability, it’s even harder. Self-trained service dogs also wash out (which means fails as a service dog) at a much much higher rate. Self-training also doesn’t save money, which is an upsetting surprise for a lot of handlers. Dogs cost money. Food and toys and vet bills and training materials and specialized trainers and service vests. Self-training means you don’t need $20,000 right at the beginning, but over the course of the training, you’ll still be spending at least $20,000. Self-training is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I am self-training Winnie mostly because no programs who work with autistic people work with adults. I also have had dogs before, and I have Jess at home to help. I do think, after 3 months of puppy-hood, that if I get another dog when Winnie retires, I’ll be seriously considering a service.

4. Service Dogs Aren’t Required to Wear Vests-

You will always be able to recognize a service dog by its vest, right? Wrong! There is nothing in the law that requires a service dog to be identifiable in any way (this is because the Americans With Disabilities Act is really big on privacy). So why do most owners put their dog in a vest? The honest answer is that it’s easier, and by easier, I mean that if you’re in a public place with a dog who isn’t wearing a vest, people will harass you. In fact, even if they are wearing a vest, and someone decides that you don’t look “disabled enough”, they might harass you. I think we’ve all experienced “disabled enough” before here.

5. There is No State or Federal Registry For Service Dog-

You might have seen a service dog walking around with an ID or certification papers, and listen to me now when I tell you that it’s all crap. The only requirements that make a service dog a service dog is that its handler has a disability that requires an assistance dog and that the dog is trained to do tasks for the handler. The dog may be asked to leave a public space if it’s not well behaved, but that’s slightly different. So, to get down to it, service dogs cannot be certified, and asking handlers to provide paperwork or asking invasive questions isn’t legal. Any company that says that they can provide papers, or certification, or identification are just looking for money.

6. Service Dogs Aren’t Just Well Behaved, They’re Trained for Specific Tasks-

Service dogs look like the most obedient dogs in the world, and while this is true, obedience is the least of what they are trained for. The things that make service dogs more than just well-behaved pooches is the idea of tasks. Service animals are trained to do specific things. A guide dog has very different skills than a diabetic alert dog, and these skills are called tasks. Tasks break behaviors into little bits, like a guide dog can be trained to lead their handler to a specific place. Tasks are required, period. Generally, 3 is the minimum. Using Winnie as an example, she’ll be trained to do Deep Pressure Therapy, to sense when I’m getting overstimulated and lead me to a quiet area, and to interrupt my harmful body stims. This is just for me. Another autistic person might have their dog do an entirely other set of tasks. Everyone is an individual, and that’s one of the things that makes training a service dog so complicated.

7. Service Dogs Can be Any Breed, From Chihuahua to Great Dane

Picture a service dog for me. There’s a golden retriever in your mind’s eye, isn’t there? That, or a doodle of some sort. And there’s a reason for that. Labs, retrievers, and poodles are all very well suited to being services dogs, because of their temperaments and learning styles. This does not mean though that other breeds aren’t up to the job (although some breeds are more suited than others). Any breed as long as they’re smart, trainable for the handler’s needs, and polite and non-reactive can be service dogs. So, while German Shepherds make good guide dogs, smaller more portable dogs like chihuahua and Shih-Tzus might make fantastic seizure alert dogs. An informal note about this though, using a non-standard breed can and will make people pay more attention to you. It’s just a thing.

So, there was a lot of information! Do you feel smarter, or just tired? Anyway, if you’ve got questions, or you think I forgot something important, or if you think I’m just plain wrong about something, drop me a line, and let me know!

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