Service dogs: Not just pets

September was service dog month. These animals are not just pets, but rather life-saving medical equipment.

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Jayde Barnett

Service dog, Molly, provides deep pressure therapy for Jayde Barnett.

Jayde Barnett walks into the grocery store, people gasp and point as he walks by, whispering to their friends, but they aren’t pointing at him. They are pointing at the black golden retriever mix at his side, Molly.

Service dogs are trained to help their disabled handlers. They can be trained for a variety of disabilities including post traumatic stress disorder, autism, diabetes, cardiac conditions, vision loss and epilepsy. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service animal is defined as a dog or miniature horse that is trained to perform a task for people with disabilities. The task must be something the handler cannot do themselves. 

“So my service dog helps me with my PTSD… She does this by performing … deep pressure therapy and alerting to like high stress levels as well as waking me when I have nightmares,” alum and service dog handler Jayde Barnett said. 

Service dogs go through vigorous training to stay focused on their handlers at all times and perform tasks that can save their handlers’ lives.

While service dogs can be trained by their owners, simply putting a vest on a dog doesn’t make it a service animal. 

“Those who have fake service dogs are studying a specific standard, even if they don’t realize it, they are setting a standard of behavior and obedience, and just like access,” Barnett said.

This makes it even harder for real service dog handlers to access non-pet friendly spaces because people are so used to seeing misbehaving dogs they assume there is no standard for real service animals.

“We’ve actually had issues where we’ve had some fake service dogs like lunge and try and attack my service dog… as we were working out in public,” Barnett said. 

Service animals are legally considered medical equipment and people can face imprisonment or fines for interfering with a service animal, but usually no action is taken by law enforcement. 

An important distinction between service dogs and emotional support animals exists. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) simply provide comfort to their handler by just being in their presence and have no training standards while service animals are specifically task trained to mitigate their handler’s disability. 

ESAs are not allowed to enter non-pet friendly places with their handler while service animals are allowed wherever their handler is allowed. 

While fake service dogs and ESAs in public are a danger and an issue, no problem is more prevalent than the public’s involvement with working dogs. 

“There’s this big issue that… the general public has with… staring and… treating service dogs and their handlers, like a walking entertainment system,” Barnett said.

Calling, petting, and distracting service animals can cause them to miss a cue to do their job. In cases like cardiac alert or seizure alert dogs this can be life threatening. 

“I’m not at the grocery store with my service dog to entertain you and your kids while you’re shopping. I’m at the grocery store with my service dog to pick up groceries…” Barnett said. 

The extra attention to service animals can be exhausting for service dog handlers. In the cases of psychiatric service animals the extra attention can even make their disability worse.  

“And.. when people stare and when people point, and then people are… asking just overloading questions. It can be really really frustrating,” Barnett said.

Service animals are life changing for individuals who have them and while they are fun to watch it is vital for the general population to ignore them. “[His service dog] really opened up just a lot of accessibility for me to be able to…go out and do things and go out and not be… afraid to be out on my own, which has been really nice,” Barnett said.

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