Having my service dog has changed my life. I’ve had Yogi, my black lab, for nine years now. He has helped me become more independent than I ever thought possible, and in more ways than I could have ever imagined. In the last decade or so of being part of the service dog community, I’ve noticed a pattern of myths and misconceptions surrounding these animals. These misconceptions are often from well-meaning people, but do tend to get irritating after about the third or fourth time you’ve heard them that day. Yes, when you have a service dog, you get these questions that often. Today, I hope to part the fog and educate you on some common things people misunderstand about service dogs.
You Can Always Tell Why Someone Needs a Service Dog
One thing I was guilty of, prior to getting a service dog, was judging people who were not visibly disabled who had a service dog. While the most common types of service dogs are for seeing-eye and mobility, not all disabilities are the same — or even visible. There are dogs that can be trained for any number of things, such as seizure prevention or monitoring blood sugar. These disabilities aren’t always visible, but that doesn’t mean the handler doesn’t need their dog. Service animals offer independence and safety, whether an onlooker can discern why or not.
Only Labradors, Goldens, Poodles, and Shepherds can be Service Dogs
Yes, Labs, Goldens, Poodles, and Shepherds are the most commonly used breeds for service dogs. But that does not exclude every other dog on the planet. The reason these breeds are used so often is because, generally speaking, they have the temperament, smarts, and overall health best suited to be good at their job. However, that doesn’t mean they are the only breeds that can be service dogs. Many places that train service dogs will go to shelters for their dogs, looking more for temperament than breed.
Sometimes the breed is determined by what sort of jobs it has to do, too. For example, if the dog needs to help someone get up from a seated position or pull a manual chair, they need to be strong. In this case, looking at drafting dogs might be good. Or for diabetic or allergy dogs that don’t need to do any sort of physical work, perhaps you might look at a smaller breed. Whatever the case may be, the dog has to be right for the job–regardless of breed.
Any dog can be a service dog
The other side of the coin is that just because any breed can be a service dog doesn’t mean any dog could be a service dog. Service dog trainers are generally good at picking out dogs suited for becoming a service dog, but there are times it doesn’t work out. The place that trained Yogi, for example, gets more dogs in for training versus dogs that ultimately end up working. This is due to any number of factors. Sometimes the dog is too friendly and wants to say “hi” to everyone it sees, making it hard for the dog to concentrate on it’s job. And other times it can be a health issue that arises while the dog is still in training. In instances like this, the program I went through has a “fabulous flunkies” program that adopts these dogs out to good homes.
Service dogs are forced to work, despite not liking it
Please, Yogi has never been forced to do anything a day in his life! He loves working. Sometimes, he’ll even do things without me needing to tell him to. Dogs need stimulation to keep them entertained, and his “jobs” are just fancy tricks. I think his favorite thing to do is push the automatic door buttons, especially if he gets to hop up on his back legs to do it. And trust me, if he didn’t want to do something, he will (and has) refused. Usually, this is because he perceives some sort of hazard (this button gave me a static-shock last time. I don’t like that). Lots of treats and coaxing usually help with this!
The dog is always working
Now, this one might be true for certain working dogs, but not all. Yogi is certainly not always “on the clock”. In fact, I tell people that I have two dogs: Working Yogi and Lazy Yogi. “Working Yogi” is my service dog. He wears a vest and comes with me to places like the mall, doctor’s appointments, and the grocery store. “Working Yogi” is generally well behaved. “Lazy Yogi” is a couch potato who steals food off the coffee table and chases squirrels in the backyard, whining when they climb up the tree because he can’t get up there too. “Lazy Yogi” will still do jobs for me if I need him to, but he’s more reluctant and will take his good ol’ time.
Service dogs are perfectly behaved all the time
They’re dogs, not robots. They get scared, uncomfortable, and sometimes are just downright stubborn. Most of the time I know if something is going to set Yogi off. I either avoid it the best I can or warn him ahead of time that everything is okay and I won’t let the thing be a problem. The two years of training he had did a good job of exposing him to all kinds of weird sounds, sights, and smells, but not everything.
Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs are the Same Thing
No, they aren’t. Service dogs have at minimum two years of training for specific tasks, and are allowed to go into public areas with their handler. Therapy dogs have less training and are home-based dogs that have the same restrictions as a normal pet. Therapy dogs are also not included in being exempt from no-pet policies in places like shops and apartments. This is because they do not have the training and certification to be in public places. These dogs’ jobs are no less important than a service dog, but they are distinctly different.
Hopefully, you’ve learned something about what a service dog is and does. These animals are extremely liberating for someone with a disability and can be the difference between staying home and going out and being an active member of society. These dogs all have an important job to do, and I hope this article shows just how important and versatile they are.