12 Misconceptions About Service Dogs and Those Who Use Them

By Kaelynn Partlow, August 2019

Today, as dogs are being trained to assist with an increasingly wide range of conditions, more individuals are incorporating a four-legged helper into their lives. That said, there are still many misconceptions surrounding service dogs, including who can have them and what they do.

Here are 12 of the most common misconceptions about service dogs.

1. Emotional support dogs are the same as service dogs.

There is a very clear legal difference between the two, and they shouldn’t be confused. An emotional support dog is defined as an untrained pet who emotionally supports her or his handler. With a doctor’s note, support dogs are allowed to fly in the cabin of an aircraft free of charge and live in no-pets-allowed housing.

A service dog, however, is considered to be medical equipment, no different than a wheelchair or insulin pump. Service dogs must be specifically trained to do work or tasks relating to the mitigation of a person’s disability. Emotional support, comfort or calming effect do not count as work or tasks for a service dog.

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2. Service dogs are certified or registered after completing training.

While in the U.S., there is no such thing as a legitimate federal or state identification card or certificate that “proves” a dog is a trained service dog, many scam sites claim their products are not only legitimate, but mandatory. It is because of such scam sites that this misconception exists.

3. Service dogs are only for the blind or deaf.

This used to be the case many years ago, but things have changed. Today, service dogs are used by people with mental illnesses, autism, seizures, diabetes and countless other conditions.

4. Training only takes a few months.

Technically speaking, training never ends. Service dogs must be able to learn new things and adapt to their handlers’ needs as they change over time. Additionally, it is not uncommon for fully trained dogs to need a bit of touch-up on things they’ve already learned how to do. But initially, from start to finish, it takes about two years to train a service dog.

5. Service dogs work all the time and never get time to “just be a dog.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth! Being a working service dog is arguably the best life a dog could have. They’re able to be with their handlers almost all the time, no matter where they go. They have a job and a purpose, and most get a higher quality of care than many humans.

6. Bully breeds can’t be service dogs.

Any dog of any breed, shape or size can potentially be a service dog, provided they are healthy, have a stable temperament and can be trained to do the necessary work. Many “unusual” breeds make fantastic service dogs.

7. People with service dogs are lucky because they get to bring their dog everywhere with them.

It’s understandable why someone might think this. However, people with disabilities certainly do not see it that way. The dog is there because the person has a condition that affects their capacity to perform at least one major life task. The dog’s purpose is to help the person be more independent.

8. Service dogs know if people are carrying drugs.

The number of people who are fearful of service dogs because they think they’re there for drug detection is surprising. While the dog can probably smell drugs, service dogs and detection dogs are trained to respond to completely different things. The only person service dogs focus on is their handler.

9. It’s okay to pet a service dog if the handler isn’t looking.

In the service-dog community, people who do this are called “drive-by petters.” They wait for the handler to look away, then pet the dog as they walk by. Not only is this disrespectful, it’s also distracting to the dog, who needs to be focused on working. In addition, most states have laws prohibiting interference with or intentionally injuring (or allowing another dog to injure) service dogs.

10. People with service dogs want to chat.

No, they don’t. They usually just want to, say, get milk and go home rather than indulge a stranger’s curiosity. Just because they have a dog doesn’t mean they want to share their life story with everyone who asks.

11. Businesses can require people with service dogs to prove they need them.

According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, staff may ask two questions: First, is the dog a service animal who is required because of a disability? Second, what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

They cannot ask about the person’s disability; require medical documentation, a special identification card or training documentation; or ask that the dog demonstrate the work or task.

12. Businesses are never allowed to ask that a service dog be removed.

Just like people with disabilities, businesses have rights too. If a dog is out of control, acting aggressively or not housetrained, a business can and should ask that the dog be taken off the premises.

The next time you see a servicedog team out and about, ignore the dog and go about your business. It’s fine to offer a smile, but beyond that, do the team the courtesy of allowing them to go about their business as well, without distractions.

Kaelynn Partlow was diagnosed with autism and learning disabilities as a child; as an adult, she is a therapist working with autistic children. At Assistance Dogs of the Carolinas, she teaches people with disabilities to train their own service dogs.

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