What is a service dog?

I get asked this a lot, particularly considering I have a dog who accompanies me everywhere. I can't give you all the answers, but what I can tell you is that it is a dog that is used by a disabled person in order to be able to maintain a somewhat 'normal' life. The dog must be trained in at least one task to assist the person, and the handler must be disabled in some form.

Service dogs come in a wide variety, from anxiety dogs for people with PTSD, to hearing dogs for the deaf, and seeing eye dogs for the blind. There are even dogs that are used by paraplegics to retrieve items for them!

While some service types can have universal training (like seeing eye dogs), most service dogs have individual training to suit their handler's needs best.

So you can take your dog anywhere?

Technically yes... and technically no. Most public places are not allowed to restrict service dog access, unless the animal is a public nuisance (barking repeatedly, attacking customers, not being house broken etc. etc. basically everything that would be a nightmare for the disabled person). Some places may restrict the animals for health reasons, such as hospital clean rooms, the cooking areas of restaurants (but not the dining areas), and so on.

When in doubt, it is best to contact the place you are going to first, and make certain that there are no special requirements beforehand for your animal. For example, when I fly with Zeus (and now Tucker, as Zeus is retired), most of the airlines I've traveled on have required information on him, verifying his validity as a service dog. Sometimes it's as simple as a letter from my doctor, stating that I am disabled and Zeus is a part of my treatment (technically it's not required for service dogs, but people confuse ESA and service dogs all the time and it's easier to just provide it than to argue). Sometimes they also require certification of health from his vet. These things are done not to inconvenience the disabled person, but so that the airlines can help everyone and make sure all of their passengers are comfortable. Usually I will be placed behind the bulkhead, furthest from the bathrooms and closest to the door to minimize the amount of contact my dog will have with the plane and other passengers. This is in case another passenger is allergic, they have the least amount of contact possible with the canine.

Wait, Zeus and Tucker, fly?

That's right, he does and has several times. There wasn't really a way to prepare him for the experience of flying, but we did the best we could before our first trip. The big things to look out for when traveling with a service dog are these:

  • Potty Breaks. There are none. Getting through security repeatedly for potty breaks on long flights is next to impossible. Generally it's wise to train your dog to go on a portable puppy pad, for these sorts of emergencies.
  • Ear popping. When the cabin pressure changes, it can put pressure on the eardrums that causes a great deal of discomfort. Ever been on a flight with a baby who screams and screams the whole time? That would be why, they don't know how to yawn to pop their ears, so they are in real pain. The same thing can happen to canines. I found bringing something for Zeus to chew on gets that same motion going and helps him to pop his ears. 
  • Your fellow passengers. One of the first things a person with a service dog will tell you is that they dread having to tell people 'no I'm sorry you can't pet my dog'. That's just with people passing by in stores! What about people sitting next to you on an hour long flight? It can be incredibly difficult, and I've found that everyone reacts differently. Some people ask to be moved to a different seat, some people respect that the dog is just there to look at and not touch. You just take it as it comes.
  • The flight attendants. Part of why people with service dogs are asked to board first, is because if your dog is trained to go get help in an emergency (as mine is), you have to tell the flight attendants what to expect. And let me tell you, having them go white and panic is not always good. I've found just... easing the subject and makign light of it 'hey so I might need assistance and be unable to reach the button, my dog is trained to get you if that happens', usually keeps them from becoming too scared and thinking you are a health hazard. 

Remember to pack food and water for your dog appropriate to the trip. Even though you want to be light on giving them water because of the lack of bathroom breaks, you still need to make sure they're hydrated!

This all sounds awesome, how do I get a service dog?

It does, right?
First thing, talk to your doctor. Remember, you have to actually need a service dog. If your desire is just to have a puppy around all the time, trust me. This is not for you. Having a dog around 24/7 can be extremely tiring. It's hard work keeping up with the training, and very stressful whenever anything goes wrong. Dog getting sick in the hotel, other dogs attacking yours, store owners refusing you service and embarassing you for having a dog, invasive questions about your health and why you have one. There's a lot of bad that goes with having a service dog, so make sure that the good will outweigh it.

Afterwards, talk to your doctor. Talk about your health, why you feel you need a service dog and exactly what benefits you'll receive from it. Not all health providers are pro service dogs, so if you feel strongly that one will benefit you, you may need to get a second opinion. A lot of doctors aren't up on the laws regarding service dogs as well. So do make sure that you go to the ADA website and familiarize yourself with it.

Then look in your area. There are many dog trainers that provide full training for a variety of service animals. Remember, places that specialize in seeing eye dogs are not catch all places for any type of service animal, so do your research and make sure that your trainer can help you with the goals you need.

Finally, look at dog breeds and types. Find a breed that's suiting to your lifestyle and needs. A service dog can be any breed, but a chihuahua will be of little use for someone who needs their dog to be able to physically remove them from a situation. And in some states certain breeds are 'banned', and choosing a dog in that breed may create legal complications that are better to be avoided. 

It's only then that you start looking for a dog. Don't look for a 'cute' dog, look for a dog that has the right temperment. Look for a dog that is calm and responds well to commands. If you're starting from a puppy as many anxiety dogs are, try to find a puppy who is a little less hyper and a little more alert than most. It is all about the personality and temper of the dog. And remember... your dog CAN fail in training, and wash out. So give it your all, but avoid dogs that have red flags in behavior or breed tempers.

I hope all this helps out, and if you do make the choice to have a canine partner, I wish you all the best.