Last week I was volunteering at my local Mennonite Central Committee thrift shop when an old-time volunteer saw me, but didn’t recognize me. She told me: “Is that your dog? What does he do? He isn’t your service dog, right? You look fine. You look well!” Her confusion was such that she questioned whether or not I was the same person she knew from before. Although my first instinct was to smile and thank her for validating my apparent good appearance, I struggled with whether or not to explain the reason behind having my furry friend along.
“He is my service dog,” I said. “He has a job. In our province, service dogs don’t require certification, but we actually went through a certification process last year for a number of reasons.” I continued to explain to her many of the benefits and complications of having a service dog, and it made me reflect on the need of our church and organizational spaces to be more educated in the subject. So, here are the top five things to know about service dogs.
Not all dogs that wear a vest are equal. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” On the other hand, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) “are animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. But because these dogs are not trained to perform a specific job or task for a person with a disability, they do not qualify as service dogs under the ADA,” according to the American Kennel Club. AKC also describes therapy dogs and facility dogs as those that “bring cheer and comfort to hospital patients, assisted living center residents, stressed travelers in airports, college students during exams and in other situations” — the difference is that therapy dogs have a handler, and facility dogs usually stay in a particular building.
Although I understand people are curious, I would also like the general public to realize how exhausting it is to answer people’s questions regarding my service dog, and therefore my condition. Not all disabilities are visible, and not everyone wants to constantly talk about their limitations. Even the most innocent of questions such as, “Can I pet him?” are exhausting. Having to say no all the time and to feel “mean” is tiring. In fact, it is one of the reasons not to have a service dog, as the attention one might receive could outweigh the benefits for the handler.
3. Certifications and Training
Service dogs go through rigorous amounts of training in order to be able to enter any public space their handler would need to go, with very few exceptions. However, there is no mainstream training program, database, certification or government-approved list of requirements. This is made even more complicated when traveling. In my current country of Canada, the requirements are more lenient provincially, rather than federally. However, each trainer and/or organization wants to ensure their graduated service dogs can perform the tasks they were trained to do and often will be held lawfully responsible, along with the handler, if the service dog does not behave.
Just like humans, dogs go through different life stages. Even though service dogs are not pets, they usually don’t start their careers until two years of age. According to a medical article, generally speaking, by the time service dogs are 10 years old, they should retire while still being kept in shape and engaged. It is, in a sense, their time to be only pets and not working buddies.
5. Service dogs aren’t perfect (and neither are you!)
Dogs need constant reinforcement. Training never stops. Some days are better than others. Feeling tired, hungry, thirsty and/or sick may affect the performance of a service dog. I know many people who have little patience when my dog is in the same space as they are. Yet, I do all I can to be calm and cool when children touch my working service dog on two different occasions in front of their mother in a public space, and the mother does not intervene — even when my dog’s identifying vest clearly states no touching. I know my service dog will not act perfectly all the time, but the truth is that neither will anyone. We are not perfect beings, so why would we expect perfection from a dog?