Service Dogs 101 - A friendly Guide by Jessica Douglas

What is a service dog? A service dog is a dog that has been trained in one or more tasks to mitigate it's handler's disability.

What is a handler? Handler refers to the person who the dog assists. The handler *must* be disabled, though not all disabilities are visible.

What qualifies as a disability? Under the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. This includes individuals who have a record of being impaired even if they presently are not suffering from the impairment.

What is task training? This is a question with a broad range of answers. The most important clarification is that it is a specific task, and not simply providing emotional support. Emotional support is often a secondary effect of a dog's tasks, but is not the task itself.

Examples of task training can include (but are not limited to):

  • Retrieving objects that have been dropped.
  • Turning on lights.
  • Opening doors.
  • Disrupting a dissociative spell. Often with touch, or other interactions.
  • Performing pressure therapy (such as laying on key points on a person's body to assist in calming during or after panic attacks)
  • Seizure alert and/or protection
  • Blood sugar alerts
  • Alerting people who are deaf
  • Guiding people who are visually impaired
  • Medication reminders
  • Getting help… And so on.

What type of dogs can be service dogs? There are no breed or size limits to service dogs.

Can other animals be service animals? Currently service animals are limited to dogs and miniature horses.

Are Therapy and Emotional Support animals also service animals? No. A therapy animal is trained to provide comfort to many people. An emotional support animal does not require any training, and is simply there to provide emotional comfort to one person. While important jobs, neither of these types of support animals are covered under the ADA protections for service dogs.

What is the ADA? The Americans with Disabilities Act. This defines what is considered a disability, a service dog, emotional support dog, therapy dog, along with the rights and restrictions involved.

Does a service dog need identification, a vest, or patches? No.

Why can't a dog be pet/talked at/interacted with? Some dogs are able to sense changes in their handler's body or behavior, in order to pre-emptively counter a disability. The most obvious example is a seizure alert dog. A seizure alert dog can alert it's handler in advance so that the handler is able to get somewhere safe or lay down before the seizure happens. If the dog misses the alert, the handler will be taken off guard and may fall and become injured when the seizure hits.

     Another example would be a PTSD dog. PTSD dogs are often able to sense changes in their handler's behaviour and act to get their handler to safety before it becomes a full blown panic attack. Or act to distract and break up a panic attack before it becomes disabling. But if the dog is distracted, it may not sense the changes until it's too late to mitigate the situation.

Interacting with Service Dogs

     When meeting a handler, make certain to pay the dog zero attention. Do not talk to it, make sounds at it, try to make eye contact, pet it or any other distracting actions. Basically pretend like the dog does not exist.

You may ask two questions of the handler.
1. Is the animal a service animal that is required due to a disability.
2. What type of work or task is the dog trained to do.

You may NOT ask the handler about their disability.
You may NOT ask for certification or medical paperwork.
You may NOT ask for the dog to demonstrate it's training.

     Should a service dog approach you unaccompanied, do NOT ignore it. Act immediately to find the owner as they may be incapacitated and in need of help.

     The general public is often a hazard for service dog handlers to negotiate. Interfering with a working dog can lead to injury to it's handler. Most handlers are accustomed to and capable of asking people not to pet or interact with their dog.
     Sometimes it doesn't go smoothly as small children often don't understand why they are not allowed to pet the animal. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding about what is considered disrupting a dog's performance of their duties. However not allowing someone to pet or interact with their dog is well within the handler's rights. Even if it seems harmless, a dog that is distracted may miss a vital alert and the handler can be injured. 

Out of control dogs

     Sometimes service dogs have bad days, where they just can't focus. A service dog handler will correct their dog's behaviour. If the behaviour isn't corrected/is ignored by the handler, they may be asked to leave.

     A service dog MUST be housebroken. Accidents can and do happen, particularly in crowded locations where getting out is difficult. If you see a service dog urinating/defecating/throwing up your best action is to assist the handler into getting to a place where it is appropriate for the dog to do those things. 

     DO NOT attempt to physically remove a dog on your own. You risk injury to yourself and others.