When asked to consider animals who assist people, most of us immediately think of dogs that aid blind or partially sighted individuals. This is thanks to organizations such as Guide Dogs of America and The Seeing Eye who work hard to ensure that those with vision challenges receive assistance. Over the last couple of decades, different types of animals are increasingly used to help people dealing with a broader range of physical and behavioral conditions. The benefits of using these animals are numerous, with the result that they are being employed more widely and with greater frequency. Today, chances are that you are more likely to meet service animals in your daily routine than in the past. As they are actually “at work” and are not pets, what are the best approaches to take when encountering these animals?
Categories of assistance animals
Assistance animals fall into differing categories depending on the type of assistance required.
Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks relating to the handler’s needs. Not just for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf, and mobility dogs have become available allowing people with differing needs to be able to go about daily tasks with a greater level of autonomy and liberty than in previous generations. People dealing with issues such as seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, anxiety, and diabetes also benefit from using service dogs.
Police or military dogs are in the working dog category. Sadly, with terror threats being a more common occurrence over the last 15 years, we tend to see more of these dogs on duty. This is particularly true at airports where they are now an intrinsic part of the security process, rather than just used to detect contraband at customs.
In recent years there has been a rise in the number of therapy dogs used in various settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even in courtrooms. These dogs differ from service dogs in that they are used to provide affection and comfort to people, helping to reduce anxiety, stress and sometimes acting as an intermediary between the care recipient and professional staff.
Emotional support animals
Typically used by people with specific behavioral health conditions requiring extra support and comfort, these animals may accompany an owner or may be employed by a business to help improve customer experience.
Only dogs allowed?
According to an article in the Huffington Post,¹ the cost of a service dog in 2016 was around $20,000. At that time, one website that places 75-100 service dogs a year, had a wait list of 1,600 people. This equates to a potential wait time of 16-22 years, which for people requiring assistance is simply too long.
Fortunately, given the level of need, dogs are not the only animals being used in this capacity. Other animals are also suitable to assist with different medical conditions. Ferrets alert owners of seizures. Boa constrictors (yes, you read it correctly!) are used for seizure alerts, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. Parrots have a calming influence on those with bipolar disorder. Miniature horses help the visually impaired. The Guide Horse Foundation believes that miniature horses are a great option for people who love horses, for those allergic to dogs, and for people wanting longevity from their service animal.
Capuchin monkeys are great for people with dexterity issues who struggle to pick up or hold items. Pigs can help visually or physically impaired individuals or can act as therapy animals. For example, San Francisco airport employs Lilou a Juliana breed pig to comfort anxious travelers in the terminal.
Dos and Don’ts of interacting with working animals
Interact with the owner or handler
Interact with the owner but not with the animal. The owner and animal are a team and the owner’s life could depend on his team member staying focused on the job. It is better (and not considered rude) to ignore the service animal altogether. Let the owner know if his dog approaches you, and allow him to correct the situation. Therapy and emotional support animals are slightly different. For example, if the animal is employed by an airport to help calm passengers, then do ask the handler if it is OK to interact with the animal.
Be respectful of the owner. Just as a police officer will not be prepared to discuss details of why she is on duty with her dog, other service dog owners will not want to discuss their personal details with a stranger. If you cannot figure out why the owner needs a service animal, don’t ask them. Equally, if your offers of help are refused, don’t be offended, just accept that this can interfere with the work of the service dog and can confuse commands previously given by the owner.
Keep your own dog on a tight leash
Keep your own dog away from the service dog completely as other pets can be distracting for the working animal.
Allow service animals into your business
If you are a business owner in an establishment that normally does not allow pets, make sure you do allow service dogs and their owners to enter. This is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law applies to any service animal that gives assistance when there is a disability.
Educate children about service animals
Explain to children that service animals and working animals are not like regular household pets and that they have a special job to do to help the owner. Keep children at a distance from a service dog and do not allow them to pet the dog.
Don’t pet the animal
You may be the biggest dog lover in the nation, but don’t be tempted to pet a service dog unless you have the owner’s permission. Petting the dog distracts him and may prevent him from following out a complete command. An example of this is with dogs trained to detect seizures, who need to give a 10-minute warning so that the owner can get to a safe place or get help. If you distract the dog by petting him, he may not be able to warn the owner in time, which could be catastrophic.
Don’t give treats
You may love giving treats to dogs, but please don’t give treats to dogs that are on duty. Not only can it distract the dog, making for a dangerous situation, but many service dogs are on specific diets and should not be given anything that does not meet the diet criteria.
Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume that if a service dog is asleep he is off duty. If he is out with his owner, he is working.
Don’t assume that these dogs have a worse life than other dogs. They have fantastic bonds with their owners and when off duty they get to relax like any other dog.
Don’t assume that the owner has a certificate proving the dog is a service dog. Not all states require such certification and, in the states that do, owners are not always required to carry the paperwork.
Don’t assume that only dogs and only certain breeds of dog can be service animals. Many breeds of dog and different types of animal are trained to work.
Don’t assume that service dogs are only for adults. Many children with many different needs benefit from service dogs. Interestingly, one county in Colorado now uses dogs in the courtroom to help comfort children when giving testimony.
Don’t fake it
Don’t pretend to have your own service dog. You may be tempted to put a special coat on your pet and take him to places where pets aren’t ordinarily permitted, but please don’t. Not only does it confuse the distinction between pets and service animals, it is a federal crime. Allow people with genuine needs to be helped by genuine service dogs.
The best approach
For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of an individual living with physical or mental conditions, which in some cases are life-threatening. If an animal gave you the opportunity to live the fullest, most independent life possible, how would you react to someone interfering with and compromising the hard work of that service animal?
The following YouTube clip shows Windsor, a remarkable service dog, assisting his handler in running errands.
To pet or not to pet: that is the question. The answer? If you are not the individual receiving therapy or service, do not pet. Encountering a working service animal is perhaps one of the most appropriate situations in life to adopt a don’t-touch approach. Following this guideline and the others mentioned above, we can allow these incredible animals to carry out their invaluable work. You can’t help but be in awe of them – I know I am.
- Lillibridge L. What’s the Harm in Faking a Service Dog? Huffington Post. August 13, 2016