Service Dogs: Are They for Real?





We've all seen people in public places who are accompanied by dogs that they claim are service dogs. Like us, you may have questioned the legitimacy of some of these dogs. We would like to share both practical and personal information about service dogs.

New ADA Requirements

What does it mean to have a "service" animal? The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) changed the definition of what is and is not a service dog as of March 15, 2011. An excerpt from the DOJ's new regulations explains:

"Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service dogs are working dogs, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service dogs under the ADA."

So what does this mean? Basically, gone are the days when we see cats, rats, snakes, and other assorted animals being permitted entrance to areas of public accommodation because their owners claim they are service dogs. The only exception to this rule is miniature horses, and you can read about them at the link above. From this point forward, we'll use the word "dog" to denote a service animal.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines other rules that apply to service dogs:

  • State and local governments, businesses, and non-profit organizations that serve the public must allow a service dog to accompany the person with a disability to all areas of a facility where the public is allowed to go.
  • The service dog must be leashed, harnessed or tethered unless those items interfere with the dog's work or the person's disability prevents using them. In that case, the person must be in full control of the dog by using voice commands, signals or other controls.
  • If it isn’t obvious what the service dog does, only two questions can be asked:
  1. Is the dog a service dog required because of a disability?
  2. What task or work is the dog trained to do for the person?
  • Staff cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, require special identification, including capes, or training documentation, or ask to have the dog demonstrate what it is trained to do.
  • Allergies or fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access.
  • A person cannot be asked to remove the service dog from a premises unless the dog is out of control and the handler is not taking action to control it or if the dog is not housebroken.
  • If there is a legitimate reason to ask for the dog to be removed from the premises, the person with the disability must be given the option to access the services without being accompanied by the dog.
  • People with disabilities who use service dogs cannot be isolated from other patrons, treated less favorably or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons;
  • If a business requires a deposit for pets, that deposit must be waived for people with service dogs.
  • Businesses, like hotels, can charge people with disabilities for any damage caused by their service dog.

Service dogs are not pets!

So, enough of the legal stuff! Let's get to the practical side of service animals, from personal experience.

Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks for us. Yes, they're spoiled and pampered, but most of the time they cause fewer problems than our kids. They get their playtime and time out of harness, but their main job is being our service dogs.

Michael's dog, Diego, is trained to alert him to sounds he cannot hear.

Both my partner Darrell and I have service dogs. My dog, Diego, is a trained hearing dog. He's been working for about three and a half years since I retired my original service dog, Ebony, at the ripe old age of 16. Diego is trained to alert me to sounds I cannot hear due to my hearing loss. This includes alerting me to things such as the phone ringing, the doorbell ringing or someone knocking, a fire alarm going off, someone calling my name from a different room, and someone entering my office when my back is to the door.

Diego is trained to tap me and go between me and the source of the sound to which he is alerting me. This is true for everything but fire alarms—for those, Diego is trained to tap me and lie down so that I know it is an emergency.

Darrell's dog, Zoe, is a 113-pound Bernese Mountain mobility dog.

Diego has also learned to alert me to sounds for which he was not trained. For example, he will notify me if there is a siren when I'm walking.

Darrell's dog, Zoe, is a mobility dog. Due to severe neuropathy, Darrell sometimes falls, has difficulty standing from a seated position, or needs support when he's walking. Zoe is trained to help pull him up from a chair, to lie down on the floor and allow him to drape himself over her to stand when he falls, to brace herself to let him use her as support when walking, and to get help when sent for it. Because Zoe is a Rubenesque 113-pound Bernese Mountain Dog, she is large and strong enough to perform these services for Darrell.

How Zoe and Diego Saved My Life

I'd like to share the story of how Diego and Zoe played a large part in saving my life this year. On the evening of April 4, I had a heart attack at home. When I collapsed on the living room floor, both dogs immediately ran to me and lay down beside me. Diego stayed glued to me during the whole incident.

Darrell had already retired for the evening. I tried to send Zoe to get him but she wasn't able to get his attention through the closed bedroom door. I called her back to me and told her to lie down. I was able to drape myself over her and then give her the command to stand. She supported me while I stood up and then was able to bear my weight as I walked to the bedroom to wake Darrell up and have him call 911.

The paramedics arrived and I was transported to Virginia Mason. The next day I had a double bypass surgery to replace my aortic valve. When I returned home from the hospital, both dogs were wonderful boons to my recovery—especially Diego, who shepherded me all the time to make sure that I was all right. It was like I was his puppy.

I firmly believe that I wouldn't have survived until Darrell found me. I know deep down that it was because of Diego and Zoe that I got treatment so quickly and, thanks to them, I’m still here to write this. Of course, both of them are pampered more  now than before!

So back to the original question: Are service dogs for real? My answer is an emphatic yes. Sure, there are people who take advantage of the law and claim their animals are service animals; however, the majority of people who use service dogs do so for real. They perform the tasks they are trained to do. And, as in the case of Diego and Zoe, sometimes they go above and beyond to save their handler's life.

Michael Miller is the Sound Transit customer facilities and accessible services manager. He has worked in the disability field for 29 years and is a former member and chair of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services. His partner, Darrell Hubbard, is a Seattle Housing Authority contract administrator. Darrell's disability is relatively recent but he's helped Michael live with his disabilities for the past 25 years without complaining. Michael and Darrell live in West Seattle with Zoe and Diego.