10 Misconceptions About Service Dogs

September is National Service Dog Month, so let’s debunk the most common myths about them, like, no, you can’t pet them when their human isn’t looking.

by Kaelynn Partlow
September 20, 2021
Unrecognizable man sitting on a park bench with his service dog
Roman Chazov / Shutterstock

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If there’s one thing we can all collectively agree on, it’s that service dogs are true heroes. As pups are being trained to assist with an increasingly wide range of conditions — from calming people with PTSD during anxiety attacks to calling 911 in case of an emergency — more humans are incorporating canine helpers into their lives. That said, there are still many misconceptions surrounding service dogs, including who can have them and what they do. Here, we debunk are 10 of the most common ones.

1. Emotional support animals are the same as service dogs.

There is a clear legal difference between the two: An emotional support animal (ESA dog) is defined as a pet who emotionally supports their handler. With a doctor’s note, ESA dogs can live in no-pets-allowed housing. And until January 2021, they were also allowed to fly in the cabin of an aircraft free of charge. But due to some incidents by animals claiming to be emotional support animals, from llamas to peacocks, airlines will now only offer free, unconfined rides to service dogs and certified psychiatric service dogs (PSDs).

A service dog, however, is considered to be medical equipment, no different than, say, a wheelchair or insulin pump. Service dogs must be specifically trained to do work or tasks relating to the mitigation of a person’s disability. Simply offering emotional support and comfort, or having a calming effect, doesn’t quite fit the bill.

2. Service dogs are certified or registered after completing training.

Despite many scam sites that claim their products (service dog tags, certificates, or vests) are not only legitimate, but mandatory, in the U.S. there is actually no such thing as a legitimate federal or state identification card or certificate that “proves” a dog is a trained service dog.

3. Service dogs are only for the blind or deaf.

This used to be the case many years ago, but things have changed dramatically. Today, service dogs are employed by people with mental illnesses, autism, seizures, diabetes, and countless other conditions — anything that affects the person’s capacity to perform at least one major life task. The dog’s purpose is to help the person be more independent.

4. Training only takes a few months.

Technically speaking, training never ends. Service dogs must be able to learn new skills and adapt to their handlers’ needs as they change over time. Additionally, it is not uncommon for fully trained dogs to need brush up on things they’ve already learned how to do. Initially though, it takes about two years to train a service dog.

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5. Only Labrador Retrievers or German Shepherds can be service dogs.

Dogs of any breed, shape, or size can potentially be a service dog, provided they are healthy, have a stable temperament, and can be trained to do the necessary work. Many nontraditional breeds — shelter dogs and bully breeds included — make amazing service dogs.

6. Service dogs know if people are carrying drugs.

Guilty conscience? Fear not. Can a service dog smell drugs? Probably. Will it bark and blow your cover? Not likely. Service dogs and detection dogs are trained to respond to completely different things. The only person a service dog focuses on is their handler.

7. It’s okay to pet a service dog (if the handler isn’t looking).

In the service-dog community, people who do this are called “drive-by petters.” They wait for the handler to look away, then pet the dog as they walk by. Not only is this disrespectful, it’s also distracting to the dog, who needs to be focused on working. In addition, most states have laws prohibiting interference with or intentionally injuring (or allowing another dog to injure) service dogs.

8. People with service dogs want to chat.

No offense, but no, they don’t. They usually just want to, say, get milk and go home rather than indulge a stranger’s curiosity. Just because they have a service dog doesn’t mean they want to share their life story. The next time you see a service dog team out and about, ignore the dog and go about your business — allowing them to go about their business too.

9. Businesses can require people with service dogs to prove they need them.

According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, staff may ask two questions: First, is the dog a service animal who is required because of a disability? Second, what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? That’s it. They cannot ask about the person’s disability; require medical documentation, a special identification card, or training documentation; or ask that the dog demonstrate the work or task. On the flip side, if a dog acts aggressively or has an accident, a business can ask that the dog be taken off the premises.

10. Service dogs are on the clock 24/7 and never get to just be a dog.

Being a working service dogs is arguably one of the best lives a dog could have. They’re able to be with their handlers almost all the time, no matter where they go. They have a job and a purpose, which dogs thrive on. Plus, most get a higher quality of care than many humans. Separation anxiety? I don’t know her!

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Kaelynn Partlow

Kaelynn Partlow

Kaelynn Partlow was diagnosed with autism and learning disabilities as a child; as an adult, she is a therapist working with autistic children. At Assistance Dogs of the Carolinas, she teaches people with disabilities to train their own service dogs.