I’ve been seeing a lot of debates lately about service animals and fake service animals so I decided to give a little insight from someone who spent 12 years with a service dog and has had quite a long list of experiences to talk about.
This is Diamond. She was my service dog for 12 years, although she only spent 10 of them on active duty. Her last two years of life I did not bring her out in public, but when at home she still did some minor work for me, not because I asked her to, but because she refused to stop working. She passed away, in my arms, in February at the age of 14.
Diamond was a gift to me from a friend when she was four weeks old. She was the runt and her mom had quit feeding her. He told me he would let her die if I did not take her. I immediately brought her home and bottle fed her until she was strong enough to eat on her own.
When she was a little over a year old, I chose to train her as a service dog. She was already helping me with things around the house and I knew she had the perfect personality for being in public as well.
I did all of her training myself. This is entirely legal in the US. There is no regulation or registration required for service dogs. It took almost two years of 12 hour days 5 days a week, but she loved it and it was a major bonding time for us. We both worked our asses off and even years after her initial training was over I trained her to do new things as my needs changed. She absolutely absorbed every second of it.
Once I started bringing Diamond out in public I realized just how much I had underestimated the public’s ability to be respectful human beings. In the years Diamond and I had public outings I rarely went anywhere without her and we rarely had an outing where she wasn’t spit on, kicked, hit, barked at, or some kind of other physical assault.
Now you’re probably asking yourself why I would put her through that and believe me I asked myself that every single day, but let me explain why I needed Diamond out in public with me.
I have a life threatening allergy to latex and Diamond was trained to alert me to latex in the air at levels low enough that I would have the opportunity to leave before I became violently sick or dead. Those precious few seconds she could give me saved my life SO many times. So my options were bring Diamond out in public and try to have some sort of life, go out alone and risk dying or never leave my house ever again.
Why was this not an issue before I trained Diamond? Latex allergies are progressive. The reactions get worse with every exposure and I was not always this sensitive to latex. When I began training her I was not nearly as sensitive as I am now. And now I don’t have a choice but to face it alone. Why? Because of the way Diamond was treated. My anxiety has gotten so bad now I could not go in public with another service dog. My allergy has also gotten to the point I rarely leave the house anymore.
Diamond was an extraordinary animal, as are all service animals, but Diamond spent the years of public abuse protecting me. Her loyalty never wavered. She never didn’t want to go out with me. As soon as I’d grab her vest she’d get all excited and sit in front of me so I could put it on her. She loved what she did. When something would happen to her she would do her best to just shake it off. I wish I had learned how to do that from her.
One time she was injured so badly by someone (she was punched in the hip while I was distracted answering questions from another person, we were surrounded in the middle of the grocery store) it required a vet visit and I feared that she wouldn’t want to work anymore. Within a day of being home on pain meds and antibiotics she was ready to go back out. There was not a day that passed that I was not impressed with her attitude in life. When people would be barking at her or trying to distract her in some way she would look over her shoulder at me and huff. She was as frustrated at them as I was, but she rarely let it show.
Now, the point in all of that is this:
Service animals are not there for your amusement. They are legally considered medical equipment, no different than my wheelchair.
Yes they are cute. Yes they are impressive and their training is hard, hard work. Not just any dog can get through that kind of training. But they have a job to do and if you’re hurting them, distracting them or annoying them in any way you could get someone killed.
When you behave in a way that distracts a working animal (whether it’s a dog or a horse) you are very literally risking the life of another person for your own entertainment. You may think you’re only one person and that one second of time isn’t actually hurting anything.
One second of distraction for an allergy alert dog like Diamond could mean they miss the first sign of an allergen in the air and that could be very dangerous for their handler.
One second of distraction for a seeing eye dog could mean they miss alerting their handler to something important like a curb or another obstacle that could cause their handler to fall or miss something important like a bus.
One second of distraction for a hearing dog could cause their handler to miss important sounds their dog would have otherwise alerted them to.
One second of distraction for a diabetic or seizure alert dog could mean the dog misses the signs it’s trained to look for causing that person to have a seizure or blood sugar drop they would have been able to prepare for if their dog hadn’t been distracted.
Now realize that you are one person of at least a dozen (I’m being very conservative here, one day I actually counted 64 times I was stopped in a two hour shopping trip) I’m going to encounter every day who ALL have the same “I’m only one person” mentality and that distracting my working dog isn’t a big deal. Now that’s 12 distractions in one public outing, not 1. 12 chances that I will die because 12 humans could not control themselves in public. 365 days in a year makes 4,380 times I could die because humans cannot control their behavior in public.
Yes, service dogs are trained to not be distracted, but underneath all that training they are still dogs. Things happen. And those things do not need to be you sending over your kid or you arguing with a handler or you abusing the dog in some way.
So what should you do when encountering a service dog? Leave them the hell alone. Ignore them, no kissy noises, no oh my god what a beautiful dog! no can I pet your dog? and absolutely NO “BUT I LOVE DOGS!!!!” when a handler tells you to back off or not to pet their dog.
Pay attention to any and all patches the dog (or horse) may be wearing. They’re not legally required to wear any, but most do. Most of them will tell you what you need to know without disturbing the handler and the animal. They’ll say things like, “do not pet,” “service dog,” and “allergy alert”. The second thing people always said to me when they’d reach down to pet Diamond (often times without saying a single word to me) and I’d tell them to not pet her was, “I didn’t know!” If they had read her vest, they would have known. She had no less than four “DO NOT PET” patches on her vest. And please, please realize the rules DO apply to you. The number one thing I always heard was, “But I love dogs!!!” when I told people not to pet her. In the words of another service animal handler, “I love tiddies, but I don’t put my hands on every one I see.”
Service dogs are working. Would you want someone coming up to you while you’re at work, pointing at you, talking to you and not letting you do your job? No? So don’t do it to service dogs.
The only exception to this is if you see a service dog WITHOUT a handler. If a service dog without a handler is trying to get your attention that means something is wrong with the handler and the dog needs help. Follow the dog. They will take you where they need you.
Now about fake service animals.
There is not one single way to distinguish real service dogs and fake service dogs, but there are a few general rules.
Service dogs must be leashed and cannot sit in the shopping carts at stores. However, there are no breed requirements and sometimes it is safer for smaller dogs in crowded stores if they are held. In grocery stores they should keep their noses to themselves. A dog that is sniffing/licking food is a red flag. Same applies for restaurants.
Barking is not an indicator of a fake service dog. Some service dogs are trained to bark as an alert, but typically these are only one or two barks max. Incessant barking can be a red flag.
Emotional support animals are NOT service animals and legally are not given public access. However they ARE given access in places like apartments where animals are not typically allowed. They have a very important role with what they do, but they do not go through the same amount of training as a service dog and therefore cannot be brought into public and expected to behave themselves.
Service animals legally have to perform at least THREE specific tasks related to the handler’s disability. You can ask if the dog is a service dog, what the tasks they perform are, however you cannot ask the animal to perform them or anything about the person’s disability. This is the law.
Every single online “registration” for service animals is a scam. They prey on people because a lot of housing organizations require documents for the animals not realizing this is illegal and most people would rather have what’s “required” than fight it. Housing and air travel can ask for doctor’s notes to allow them, but not for specific registration as there is no federally recognized registration.
The service dog laws need a lot of changes in my opinion, there are too many loopholes. But until they are changed things are what they are.