Service dogs perform astonishing tasks for their handlers, but they are often misunderstood by the public. In this article, I’ll go through eight things everyone should know about service dogs.
1. A Working Service Dogs Shouldn’t Be Disturbed
People with a service dog need their pet to be alert and focused when in public locations. In many cases, the dog is the person’s lifeline and essential for their health, safety and quality of life. A Guide Dog, for example, often decides whether it’s safe to cross the road, so a distraction could be deadly.
For this reason, it’s best to ignore service dogs. This can be hard for dog lovers, as they are nearly always well-behaved, friendly and cute. But these dogs are performing an intensely demanding task, so even a small distraction could be disastrous.
2. Service Dogs Come in All Shapes and Sizes
The breed and appearance of a service dog can vary greatly depending on the handler’s disability. Not all service dogs are Labradors or Golden Retrievers.
Some dogs, for example, are trained to help veterans cope with PTSD. Others assist deaf people with daily living, including alerting them to alarms.
With so many different tasks, a variety of breeds and sizes are employed as service dogs. Unfortunately, some people assume that if a dog doesn’t “look” like a service dog then it isn’t doing important work.
3. Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs are Different
Therapy dogs often look like service dogs, as they wear harnesses and are allowed into some medical facilities. There’s a big difference in the level of training and responsibilities though.
Therapy dogs are usually pets that visit hospitals or other medical establishments. They provide a wonderful service and can help people cope with extended stays in hospital.
All therapy dogs need to be well-trained. The handler must rely on their obedience in a medical environment with lots of distractions. They also have a calm and laid-back temperament, as it’s important they don’t get stressed.
A therapy dog doesn’t go through the extensive training given to a service dog though. It’s usually fine for you to interact with them, as long as you ask the handler first. Therapy dogs are also treated like any other pet in a public place, while service dogs can enter most buildings.
On a side note, not all service dogs wear special vests or harnesses when they are working. They may wear a standard dog harness or just a collar instead. Many handlers choose to use a labelled vest to make accessing shops or restaurants easier, but this isn’t required.
4. A Dog May Be Working Even When It Doesn’t Appear to Be
One of the most common mistakes made by the public is to assume a service dog can be approached when it’s “not working.” The problem is that service dogs are always working when in public – even if they appear to be off-duty.
A good example is dogs that are trained to detect seizures or panic attacks. If these dogs are distracted, they may not notice a potential danger signal as quickly as they usually would.
5. Service Dogs Are Highly Trained by Expert Trainers
It sounds obvious, but many people don’t realise the extensive training service dogs receive. The process can take months or even years, depending on the task, and requires experts at every stage.
The training process for Guide Dogs UK, for example, can take up to 18 months. During this time, the dog is given one-to-one training for a variety of tasks. Even with this extensive program and expert trainers, not every dog makes the grade.
The training process is also expensive. It costs £40,000 to train and support a hearing dog throughout its life, for example, which is why service dog charities rely on donations from the public.
6. Service Dogs are Dogs Too
Service dogs aren’t pets. While they are well-loved by their handler and often develop a wonderful bond, they provide a vital service – at least when “on the job.”
Even so, service dogs are still dogs, so they aren’t perfect. Many go through extensive matching processes to find the right owner who can deal with whatever issues they might have. Little details, such as the dog’s natural walking speed or temperament around cats, can make the difference between a perfect match and one that’s unlikely to work.
7. Service Dog Handlers Are Busy People
It’s understandable that service dogs are interesting to any dog lover. They usually have excellent temperaments and perform tasks that are far beyond the average dog.
For this reason, many people want to talk to service dog users. There’s nothing wrong with this, but be aware that the person may be asked questions about their dog multiple times on every trip. Some people won’t mind, but others may be busy or just not in the mood to chat. You should avoid asking personal questions about the person’s health.
8. Service Dogs Are Amazing Animals
People with regular exposure to service dogs often overlook how amazing they are. We all know dogs are wonderful pets, but their ability to perform complex and mentally demanding tasks is astonishing.
This list of tasks performed by service dogs is also growing. Some dogs are now trained to guide owners from crowded spaces during a panic attack, detect low blood sugar in diabetics and even pull wheelchairs. Dogs truly are incredible animals and companions.