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5 Facts about service animals you need to get straight

SheKnows Editorial Intern Juliana Curtis is a student at the University of San Diego majoring in communications, marketing, coffee drinking, and social media stalking. Juliana spends most of her time studying or writing on a wide array o...

What one person with a disability wants you to know about service animals

Jessica Douglas has had her service dog, Zeus, for about seven years to help her live with PTSD. Zeus is trained to alleviate panic attacks, bring medicine and call for help whenever necessary. When Jessica posted a picture of Zeus on Tumblr, the internet had a lot of questions. Here’s what she would like you to know about having a service animal.

1. Any dog can be a service dog but only if trained

There are many myths that only golden retrievers and Labradors can be service animals, but this is not true. Any breed can be trained to be an excellent service dog, demonstrated by Zeus, a miniature poodle. However, this does not mean that someone can go to the pound and select any dog to become his or her service dog. "I’ve seen quite a few people just go to the pound and adopt a dog and go, 'This will be my service dog.' It doesn’t work that way. It’s not that easy," said Jessica. The dog has to be trained from the beginning as any training done to a rescue dog may wash out due to the baggage it come with.

What one person with a disability wants you to know about service animals

Image Credit: Jessica Douglas

2. There is a difference between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support companions

Emotional support animals aren't specifically trained. "They’re literally just there to cuddle, basically. It’s a pet, but it’s a pet for your emotional well-being," Jessica told us. Then there are therapy dog companions, which are used mainly for comfort and companionship, not specific tasks. They are trained and well-behaved, but they are only meant to help emotionally and are not allowed everywhere like service animals are. "One of my friends is a psychologist, and she has a therapy dog that she keeps in her office, and when her patients come in, she has her therapy dog there that they can just cling to when they need it," Jessica said.

Service animals, like Zeus, are highly trained and must be able to do at least one task specific to their owners' disability. They're only assigned to people who have been classified as disabled by their doctor, and the doctor has made a recommendation for a service animal. They can go anywhere the general public can go.

What one person with a disability wants you to know about service animals

Image Credit: Jessica Douglas

3. Service dog owners can get a lot of backlash

Service dogs require a lot of training, health care and attention, but even more challenging can be the resistance owners receive when interacting with other people. It is common for retail and restaurant owners to be wary of service dogs since so many people have used “fake” service dogs as a way to take their pets into places. "I've had to miss out on a birthday party because a restaurant owner refused to let me in because she didn't believe that Zeus was a service animal," said Jessica.

Owners of service dogs have to be prepared to answer questions about why they need the animal, which is technically legal but can feel invasive, and often get turned away if a store owner does not believe the animal is necessary. Also, people who have service dogs have to constantly tell people not to pet their dog, which can upset people who don’t understand why — leading us to the most important thing to know.

4. Do not pet the dog!

Something people don’t realize is that service animals are always on the job, and distractions of any kind are not appreciated. "At the end of the day, they’re still dogs," Jessica said. "So when people get their attention and/or make cooing sounds at them or reach out to pet them, any sort of direct interaction with the dog, what they’ve done is pulled the dog out of the job."

It is difficult for owners to ask adults and children alike to leave the dog alone, so remember to keep yourself and your kids away from the dogs in vests. And don’t pull it out of the job just because you think it’s cute. You could be stopping it from performing a life-saving task. "In my case, Zeus is often trained to go get help if I fall unconscious," Jessica said. "If I let someone pet him, then he associates them as someone safe, and so if I collapse at a convention and he knows he has to go get help, he will go for someone who's been allowed to pet him."

So please, “Don’t pet, don’t talk to them, don’t look at them. It’s not rude to ignore my dog. Please ignore my dog!”

5. Owning a service dog should not be taken lightly

One thing Jessica could not emphasize enough is that a service dog is a major responsibility, not just a cute pet to take everywhere. If you're thinking about getting a service animal, it is important to talk to your doctor first, as a doctor must first agree that you are disabled and that a service animal is in your best interest. "I really want to emphasize to people, get your mental health sorted out first before you think about a dog," Jessica said. "Take care of your health first and then decide if it’s going to be the right choice."

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