7 Facts about Service Dogs

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The terms “service dog” or “assistance dog” are quite well-known these days. They are often in the media, for both good and bad reasons. So what is the true definition of a Service Dog, what does the law say about them, and what are the downsides to owning one?

Read on to learn all about service dogs – including if a Husky could make a good service dog!

1. What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a working animal that is trained to help a person with a disability or special need. They are trained by professionals, or sometimes by the dog owners themselves.

In the past, service dogs are trained mostly to assist sensory-impaired or physically disabled people to get around safely and live independently. Nowadays, they can assist people with a variety of other conditions like seizure disorders, autism, diabetes, psychological issues, and more. Basically, service dogs can be trained to help anyone who needs a little extra assistance with their day-to-day living!

Service dogs are different to working dogs like military, police, or search-and-rescue dogs. These animals are trained intensively by experienced professionals, and their handlers are also highly trained. They fall under a different legal category to service dogs. It should also be noted that service dogs are different to emotional support or therapy dogs, which are not generally trained to perform specific services.

Related: Training Your Siberian Husky to Listen to You

2. What Do Service Dogs Do?

Depending on the functions they’re trained to perform, service dogs can perform a variety of useful or even vital tasks. The most highly-trained service dogs can help people with profound sensory or physical disabilities to maintain their independence, both in private or public spaces. Guide dogs for the blind are one of the best-known service dogs.

Service dogs are not only trained to help the disabled – they can also help people with various physical or psychiatric health conditions.  They can alert owners who are about to suffer a seizure, a hypoglycaemic episode, narcolepsy, or an anxiety attack – often before the handler is even aware of it themselves! The handler then has time to take the necessary steps for their safety and wellbeing.

Service dogs can remind people to take medication at selected times, or under certain conditions. They can alert selected medical staff, work colleagues, security officials or even a designated neighbour if the handler suffers a medical incident or becomes unresponsive. Service dogs can often locate and bring items like EpiPens, insulin kits, or first aid kits to their handlers on command.

Some service dogs are trained to use their own bodies to protect the head and neck of a handler who has fallen or is seizing. If a handler is rendered incapacitated in public, the service dog can guard their belongings and bodies against theft or tampering. Last but by no means least, service dogs can be trained to help people with balance or weakness issues to stand up from a seated position, or to get up and down stairways.

In short, the only things service dogs can’t be trained to do are read and write!

service dog husky trio
Photo: pinterest.com/pkinsler1313/

3. What Does The Law Say About Service Dogs?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says the following:

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

What this means legally is that the dog referred to must NOT be simply a pet, even it’s the pet of a disabled person. Pets and emotional support animals are not afforded the same privileges as service dogs. They can’t legally enter most “no dogs” spaces, for example, while service dogs can. That’s not to say that your pets or support animals aren’t just as important as service dogs, of course!

Service dogs are allowed by law to enter businesses, food service establishments, state and local government facilities, and non-profit organizations that serve the general public. Many people are not aware of the law and can make entering a building with a service dog awkward or stressful.  However (and this is a very important “however”!), service dogs must be kept strictly under control at all times by their handlers. This is where their obedience training becomes important.

Service dogs are not just trained to assist people to perform various tasks, and alert to various cues – they are also trained to behave impeccably in public spaces. They should be able to sit quietly and unobtrusively in places where other dogs would not be normally allowed.

Trained service dogs out in public should be leashed or harnessed as much as possible, and not show any aggressive or disruptive behaviour. A dog in training will get some wiggle-room until they are fully trained. If the dog scratches incessantly, sniffs everything, or is (horror of horrors!) not toilet-trained, these behaviours count as disruptive just as much as barking, growling, snapping or running around.  A business has the right to deny entry to visibly disruptive animals, or request their removal, and they can enlist security officials or law enforcement if they need to evict an unruly dog – or handler!

The law says that disabled people don’t have to disclose their particular disability when entering a business or public building with their service dog. However, staff or security can ask the handler the following two questions to protect themselves from liability, if the animal being brought into the building is not an “obvious” service dog:

  • Is the dog a service animal that is required to assist with a disability?
  • What specific task(s) has the dog been trained to perform to assist its handler?

4. What Are The Bad Things About Service Dogs?

Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous companies who take advantage of the growing need for service dogs. These companies often advertise healthy fully trained service dogs, but when the customer receives the animal after paying many thousands for its alleged “care”, “training”, “certification” and “transport” fees, it’s not what they expected for their hefty investment.

Contracts and bills of sale from fake or unethical service dog providers are often inadequate as well, protecting the seller while giving the customer no recourse to recoup their investment or sue the company. 

Dogs sold by bad companies are often too young to be trained, are inadequately trained, have behavioural issues, or have undisclosed health issues that can cost the buyer a fortune in vet bills. These problems result in stressed and unhappy owners who are out of pocket, and stressed and unhappy dogs who can’t live up to their handler’s expectations no matter how hard they try. Dogs can be injured by performing physical tasks they’re not strong enough for – e.g. if they have skeletal deformities from inbreeding. They can suffer extreme anxiety in situations they’re not trained for, and become aggressive, or shut down and become catatonic.

On the other side of the coin, ill-prepared service dog owners can also be a problem. People with special needs or health issues are sometimes unprepared for how much time, effort and money goes into caring for a dog. Service dogs are not technically pets and are classified as “disability aids”, but they still need a comfortable environment, good food, adequate exercise, and entertainment.

Related: What you REALLY need to know before buying a Husky!

The handler’s expectations should be realistic – dogs are smart, but they’re not supposed to replace a human carer. Also, not every dog is meant to be a service dog (just like not every human is meant to be a corporate tax lawyer, or a kindergarten teacher, or an obstetric nurse!) Will the handler be able to keep a “failed” service dog as a pet? If not, have they planned for and considered the logistical and emotional issues of rehoming the dog?

In worst-case scenarios, service dogs sold by unethical breeders or bought by unprepared handlers end up caged in a facility, along with of millions of other rejected animals who deserve better. Some are even cruelly abandoned.

If you or a loved one are thinking of getting a service dog, it’s important to find a reputable, experienced breeder or trainer. Don’t be rushed into a sale because “these dogs are in such high demand”, and don’t be tempted to pay a “discounted” price for an animal that’s under 18 months old or with less than 6 months of full training in public. Request a detailed list of what your money is paying for – honest breeders won’t have a problem with this. Request and verify the dog’s medical records – if possible, get an independent vet to assess the animal’s health. If you’re undertaking your own dog training, make sure you’re prepared for it – proper service training is not just a walk in the park!

There is an unfortunate trend growing on social media platforms of using service dogs as “props” to attract attention and acquire followers, rather than to fulfil a legitimate need. These “prop” animals are usually spotted in Instagram photos looking stressed and anxious in public places like noisy theme parks, state fairs, or festivals.

Not all service dogs in these places (or on Instagram!) are being used as “props” of course, but humane and ethical service dog handlers will always consider the needs of the animal above their own whims. They wouldn’t dream of subjecting an animal to an extreme environment unnecessarily, especially as the dog will likely be too stressed to do its job properly. If you have a service dog and are planning a trip to Disneyland or Coachella, or even your local pub on a holiday or game day – take a human companion instead!

5. Do Service Dogs Need Identification?

Service dogs don’t need certification, licences or visible identifiers in public. However, It’s advisable for service dog handlers to make sure their animals are easily identified in bright vests or harnesses. It’s safer for the dog in public, and it’s good etiquette to put people at ease in “no dogs” places – they’re not going to get an unleashed, untrained and unpredictable pooch slobbering and barking in their face, peeing on their leg, or chewing their property!

6. What Happens if People Are Allergic To Dogs?

Service dogs on aeroplanes vs people with animal allergies is a common issue. Both parties have rights to be there – but whose rights count more? Quite simply – no-one, so a compromise is needed. Most airline staff will shuffle one of the passengers to a different seat, but it’s not always possible. If you have allergies and are concerned about being stuck near a service dog on a plane – don’t despair! Well-trained service dogs sit still, don’t scratch incessantly, and are generally clean and well-groomed. They won’t shed nearly as much animal dander (the skin flakes that contain allergens) as the average hyperactive and overfriendly pet mutt at the park. You’ll probably be OK, pack antihistamines to be sure.

Service dog handlers planning to travel by air must take note of the law:

If a service animal is disruptive or too large to fit under the seat or at the passenger’s feet without encroaching on another passenger’s space or protruding into the aisle, it will need to travel in a kennel (provided by the passenger) in the cargo hold.

It’s important not to just pet service dogs without consent – even though they’re such good boys and girls! Service dogs should not be distracted or given attention by the public while training or working. Be mindful and let these dogs do their jobs. They make a huge difference in the day-to-day lives of disabled and mentally ill people.

7. Do Huskies Make Good Service Dogs?

As we’re a Husky-speciality website, we’ll address this particular question! The short answer is “No, Huskies don’t make good service dogs”. Before you get defensive about your amazingly smart Huskies, here’s the long answer: Huskies don’t make good service dogs because they’re bred for intense physical activity, focus and endurance in one narrow field –  the pulling of sleds in Arctic regions. That is pretty much the limit of their desire and ability to “serve” humans, no matter how much they love us.

A Husky is good at lightning speed responses to simple commands. They’re like a pro athlete poised for the sound of the starting gun, focused completely on the racetrack in front. They live to keep going, moment to moment, for as long as it takes. But if a crowd of spectators suddenly swarmed  onto the racetrack, the athlete loses his focus.  No more race now? It’s time to watch carefully for cues, keep close, obey orders, fetch and carry, guard, sit still? Yeah, NONE of that is happening.

This is not to say that Huskies can’t be trained to perform certain tasks as service dogs (or that athletes can’t do other jobs). But it requires an awful lot of patience to overcome their natural skyhigh energy, insatiable curiosity, and stubborn independence. Even normal everyday obedience training takes serious WORK with these fuzzy guys and gals! There are other breeds way better suited to service training, like shepherds and retrievers – people-centric dogs with even temperaments and strong “organizational skills” who are almost obsessively loyal and attentive. A Husky is way happier doing what he’s good at – being a hyperactive dorky ball of fuzz who likes running and breaking the house rules the moment your back is turned..