It may be generally understood that service animals perform specific functions for their owner, and as such are permitted to accompany their owner into places where other animals are not allowed. But few individuals truly understand what it is that makes an animal a service animal, and what it means to own a service animal.
Facts About Service Animals
First of all, the ADA defines a service animal as a dog that has been trained to perform certain tasks for a disabled person. Service animals may guide people who are blind, alert people who are deaf, pull a wheelchair, alert and protect an individual who is having a seizure, calm a person who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, remind a person to take prescribed medications for mental illnesses and much more. Following are five facts about service animals that you may not know:
1. Any dog that can be trained to perform a service for a disabled person can become a service dog. It’s true that there are specific dog breeds that are commonly used as service dogs, like labrador and golden retrievers, but this does not change the fact that any dog, of any breed, could potentially be trained as a service dog. That said, one cannot simply adopt any dog and turn them into a service dog. The necessary training is quite rigorous, and it can be difficult to achieve with a dog that has prior emotional baggage, as many shelter dogs do.
2. A service dog, a therapy dog and an emotional support companion is not the same thing. Emotional support companions are essentially just pets that can give love and affection to their owners–they have not been specifically trained in any sort of service capacity. Therapy dogs provide comfort and companionship, and while they are often trained in basic obedience, they do not perform any specific services. Service animals, however, are very highly trained and must be able to perform at least one specific service that addresses their owner’s disability. They are allowed anywhere the general public are allowed to go, and are only assigned to those persons whose doctor has classified them as disabled and made a recommendation for them to have a service animal.
3. Owners of service dogs can often encounter a lot of resistance from others. It is not uncommon for service dogs to be received with a skeptical eye–especially by retail and restaurant owners who have been abused by individuals sneaking their pets into places while claiming that they are service dogs. They may be asked why they need the animal, which is legal but can seem invasive, and they may be turned away if the owner of the store or restaurant does not feel that that animal is actually necessary.
4. It is never okay to try and pet or interact with a service animal. Even if they don’t seem like it, service animals are always working when they are with their owners. This means that anything that distracts them from the job, including eye contact, baby-talking and petting, potentially puts their owner at risk. It is for this reason that owners of service dogs consider it incredibly polite when someone notices their service dog’s vest and then completely ignores their dog.
5. Service dogs are a huge responsibility. One should never take on a service pet just because they think it would be “nice”. Anyone who is considering the benefits of owning a service dog should talk with their doctor, as their doctor will have to agree that they are disabled and in need of a service animal. If the individual is in a seriously poor state of physical or mental health, it is not recommended that they get a service animal as it is usually difficult for them to care for self, let alone another living thing. Owners of service animals must be well enough to generally take care of self and another before they can commit to partnering with a service animal.
There is no doubt that service animals serve their owners very well, and are therefore very important to their owners’ lives. However, they require great responsibility and commitment, and therefore should be well understood–not only by their owners but also by others around them.