Service Dogs: Training, Public Interactions, and Misconceptions
Service dogs are specially trained to help people with physical and mental disabilities. They can provide assistance with tasks such as opening doors, retrieving items or alerting their owners to medical conditions. Dogs must be highly obedient and able to follow commands in any environment. They also become an important part of the family.
Jackie works at the Hollywood Feed store in Naples, Florida with her service dog, Bonnie. Jackie was able to give me some background on how she trained Bonnie to be her service dog, how to interact with service dogs in public, and common misconceptions about service dogs.
Benefits of Owner Training Service Dogs
Bonnie was rescued at 3 1/2 months from a local rescue in Naples and started alerting at 4 months old and her alerts came naturally with no training. Bonnie is owner trained, but if Jackie needs help on a particular task or behavior, she will talk with a professional trainer who trains service dogs for a living. Bonnie started alerting – letting Jackie know a seizure is coming – 4 months after training. She is a natural alerting dog because 4 months is faster than normal! A lot of the time, it’ll take a dog two to three years to learn how to alert. Jackie will teach her something in about half an hour and she’ll remember it for the rest of her life.
Most service dogs are owner trained and do not come from a program – its best to owner train so the service dog gets used to the scent and body language of their owner. Furthermore, most programs don’t like to raise seizure alert dogs, due to the liability if the dogs don’t pick up the seizures. Jackie has 7 or 8 different alerts; the bigger the alert the bigger the seizure. It starts with a tap or a lick on the leg. She does nudge sometimes. She will jump, and that’s a big one. If Jackie is not paying attention, Bonnie will bark one
time and that’s when Jackie knows it’s serious because typically, Bonnie does not bark.
How to Interact with a Service Dog in Public
I asked Jackie, for those that may not be able to tell, how can you identify a service dog in public? Jackie said that most will say look for a vest. However, anyone can buy a vest and service dogs don’t have to wear a vest. Not wearing a vest, however, does make public access much more difficult. Some will have just an ID tag or a leash marker to show they are a service dog. The best way to see if a dog is a service dog is by their behavior. Are they obedient, respectful of other people & dogs, not having accidents, possibly doing tasks for their handler? These are things that service dogs do naturally in public.
When in doubt, don’t interact with a service dog in public.
The only acceptable time to approach a service dog is if the owner needs medical attention. One time, Jackie was having a seizure and Bonnie started walking back and forth whining. Jackie could hear, but Jackie’s eyes weren’t open, so Bonnie was her eyes. Jackie could hear her whining, and knew she was trying to get someone’s attention to help. In that situation, the dog is asking for help, and you would want to approach her like any other dog: like let them sniff you first. Most service dogs should be fine with you helping their owner. Then, they will usually accommodate. Check to see if the service dog has any medical information to help the owner.
I asked Jackie if Bonnie was ever denied admittance at an establishment. Jackie said she’s taken Bonnie everywhere except the movie theater and plane (just because Jackie hasn’t been on a plane in a while). A couple restaurants Jackie has been to try to deny Bonnie admittance, but you get used to educating people. If you explain the service dog will sit under the table and won’t be fed, then they will accommodate.
What would disqualify a dog from becoming a service dog?
There are quite a few factors that could cause a dog from not being able to be a service dog. If a dog can no longer perform the services needed for their owner, they will be “washed” from being a service dog. “Wash” is a term that means a service dog can’t perform their service dog responsibilities anymore, so they will be kept as a personal dog. Sometimes even deaf dogs could still be a service dog as long as they can still perform the services required of their owner.
If the dog is aggressive or reactive, that could mean they can’t be a service dog. Reactivity sometimes can be worked out, but sometimes it can’t. And if that’s the case, then that dog cannot be a service dog. Another reason a dog couldn’t be a service dog is if they aren’t house broken or don’t behave well in public.
7 Common Misconceptions about Service Dogs
- Service dogs have to be registered or certified. There’s no process or law for that. If someone presents you with a certification, it’s from the internet and probably fake. Some businesses may want it, but can’t require it.
- Service dogs don’t have to go through programs to become a service dog. Most dogs are owner trained. It may be different for deaf or blind, but for issues that are most internal to the body, like seizure or cardiac, the dog needs to be trained with you more to learn how your body works.
- Service dogs are only for the blind or deaf. There are so many different types of service dogs. Back in the day it was limited to blind or deaf.
- That service dogs have to be 100% “on” all the time. They have bad days like all of us. The service dog may not be listening to commands. They are allowed to have bad days. “These dogs are with us all the time, and they deserve some time off. It can be exhausting and they need naps,” says Jackie. Jackie will take Bonnie’s vest off and she’s a normal dog. They are dogs at the end of the day.
- People shouldn’t assume what the service dog is for unless it says on their vest or people tell us. Bonnie is for Jackie’s seizure alert/medical alert, which is indicated on her vest. Some people don’t really want to answer or talk about what medical issues they may have with everyone. Just because they have a service dog doesn’t mean you can pry into their business.
- Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes and breeds, like Great Danes and Pyrenees to Maltese. People shouldn’t assume little dogs can’t be service dogs. People think Pit Bulls can’t be service dogs, but Bonnie is part Pit Bulls. And she is one of the sweetest, most gentle dogs you’ll ever meet!
- Service dog handlers have different rules for their dogs. For example, when Jackie and Bonnie are out in public (except work), Jackie does not want people to pet or talk to Bonnie – because Jackie is alone and needs her dog on high alert. Many people want to take pictures of Bonnie, but that’s not something Jackie wants because she’s working. Or people will make noises to get Bonnie’s attention, but again, it distracts the dog from working. Jackie is a little more lenient at Hollywood Feed because people know her and that she’s working. Jackie in public won’t let her see other dogs. Something Jackie wants people to think about is, would you let someone pet your wheelchair? Service dogs when they are working are similar to a medical device.
Treat People with Service Dogs like Everyone Else (But Their Dogs are Special)
People with service dogs just want to go out in public with their service dog because it helps their disability. They don’t want to be harassed or question. They just want to go about their business like everybody else. Usually people with service dogs are good about answering questions, but make sure to ask the person, not ask the dog. The dog is doing medical work and if you distract them for 10-15 seconds, they could miss an alert. And for some people and their disabilities, that could be very serious.
Service dogs in training can go anywhere a regular service dog can go, except they’re training, and you need to give them some grace. For instance, they may have an accident, bark, or aren’t super obedient. It takes most dogs 2 years to become a service dog and that’s 2 years of being a service dog in training.
Big thanks to Jackie for giving all of us valuable insight on service dogs!