Stop and think about the steps it takes for you to do a normal, everyday task. What steps are involved in going to the grocery store or returning a library book? For many people, it is as simple as getting in their car or on the bus, arriving at their destination, completing the task, and going home. For those with disabilities, such as mobility issues, cancer, autism, anxiety, epilepsy, and blindness, a once simple task can be daunting. The aid of a trained service dog can both ease the burden of everyday living and help ensure the safety of those individuals. While this article focuses on rules and regulations in the United States, similar practices exist in Canada and other countries with disability legislation.
What is a service dog?
A service dog is a specially trained dog who aids those with disabilities. These dogs can help perform various tasks and even detect certain medical issues, such as a drop in blood sugar in diabetics or an oncoming seizure for an epileptic before they happen. The training can be completed by professionals or by the individual who will be utilizing the dog.
While there are no current guidelines in the United States in regards to training hours, the international standards recommend around one hundred and twenty hours in a six month period. Dogs can spend between one and two years of training and a minimum of thirty hours should be completed in public settings. Dogs that complete training can go on to be a registered service dog.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 does not define any particular breeds as service dogs, nor do they restrict breeds. Any breed of dog, including mixed breeds, can be trained to assist their human with restricting disabilities. Some breeds are more common in specific roles.
A service dog is easily identifiable by a vest or piece of fabric that identifies them as a service animal. The special fabric is not only a signal to others that the dog is currently “on the job” and providing service for its human, but it is also a cue for the dog. Service dogs know they must remain diligent and focused from the moment their vest is put on to the moment it is taken off.
Where can service dogs go?
Service dogs are the exception the “No dogs allowed” policy in place at places such as food establishments, grocery stores, and other public buildings. The Americans with Disabilities Act overrules the policy as these dogs provide a service to aid their human in leading a more normalized lifestyle. Service dogs are highly trained which ensures they will not cause the disturbances you would expect from untrained dogs.
The only exception to this rule is in places where the dog and human would be placed in danger. For example, an area with a high catwalk without proper safety railings would create a high risk of falling. This increased risk of injury deems the area as unsafe to service dogs and their human, so they could very possibly be denied entry.
Tessa Connaughton and Raider
Twenty-year-old Tessa Connaughton and her service dog Raider have recently become quite popular on social media outlets. Connaughton received Raider approximately three years ago to aid with her autism. If she is feeling overwhelmed, Raider would apply pressure therapy until the feeling passed. After an epilepsy diagnosis, training began to teach him what to do if Connaughton had a seizure.
During an outing, Connaughton fell. While this was not a medical emergency and had no injury, Raider believed she was having a seizure and rushed to get help. After picking herself up, she went in search of her service companion. What she saw when she found Raider was concerning. Raider is trained to seek out an adult in case of medical emergency. The woman he chose seemed visibly annoyed and shooed him away.
This event urged Connaughton to raise awareness. Majority of people have been taught to leave a service dog alone because they are trying to do their job and interacting with the dog will distract them. Not many realize if a service dog approaches alone that it means there is something wrong. Connaughton took to Tumblr to share her experience and ensure everyone it is okay to acknowledge and follow a service dog if they are trying to get your attention.
The Today Show
Connaughton’s Tumblr post spread quickly. It soon was passed to Twitter where it was shared over 160,000 times and started conversations regarding proper service dog procedure. The Today Show looked into the issue and brought a trainer onto the show to discuss the behaviors of service dogs.
Service dogs are trained to not jump or bark to get the attention of the person they’re trying to inform of medical emergencies. Typically, the dog will nudge a person with their nose and attempt to get them to follow. Some dogs are trained for certain cues and changes in body language or behavior and will move on to others if the first person does not respond. However, not all dogs have received that particular training and will continue to try and get your attention.
Interacting with Service Dogs
When Approached by a Service Dog with a Human
A service dog and his human are one unit. The dog provides aid while the human handles the interactions. The human will provide the dog with any commands or reassurance necessary. That being said, things do not always run completely as planned. Sometimes new sights or smells will intrigue a service dog.
If the dog starts to show interest, do not respond. It’s a natural reaction for dog lovers to want to offer a hand to sniff or let crouch down a bit to let the dog get closer and give the dog a quick pet. However, a service dog’s interest in you is not an invitation to breach the rules of service dog etiquette.
Ignore the dog’s interest in you. His focus needs to remain on the needs of his human. Do not offer the dog treats, pet, or show interest in any way. You will distract the service dog with your involvement which will cause his human to have to recall and refocus the dog. People with service dogs are trained to handle their companion. If you are trained to handle a service dog, then you are already aware that interfering with a working dog is a violation of the rules.
When Approached by an Unaccompanied Service Dog
A service dog, while wearing its vest or other markers, is on a mission to ensure his human stays safe. He is trained for any medical needs his human has, including navigation for the blind or various methods of therapy for anxiety. They are also trained to alert someone close by in case of emergency. Being approached by a service dog without their human is the only time it is okay to interact with the dog.
If you’re approached, this means his human is in danger. They may be in a medical emergency such as a seizure or diabetic coma. They may be injured and unable to seek help on their own. To aid the service dog in their attempt to seek help, look around for someone who may be in need. Ask the dog “What is it?” or “Show me!” and try to follow the direction they point. Once you locate the person in need of assistance, administer first aid if you are trained, or call 911.
If you are unable to locate the dog’s human, stay with the dog and contact medical authorities. You will be able to provide information regarding how long the dog has been away from his human and prevent him from running off further and putting himself at risk.
Do’s and Don’ts of Service Animals
To summarize, service dog etiquette is quite simple. Remembering a few Do’s and Don’ts can be the difference in hindering a service dog’s ability to do his job and being able to possibly save a life.
• Pay attention if a service dog approaches alone.
• Attempt to find the human in distress.
• Provide first aid if you are trained.
• Contact 911 if needed.