12 Misconceptions About Service Dogs

Kaelynn Partlow
Finn the Labrador Retriever service dog.

Most people have seen or heard of service dogs in some capacity. Today, with the wide range of conditions dogs can be trained to assist with, many more individuals are choosing to use a four-legged companion in their treatment. That said, there are still many misconceptions surrounding service dogs, who can have them and what they do. Here is a list of some of the top 12 myths surrounding our working dogs.

1. One of the most widespread misconceptions about service dogs is that they are “certified” or “registered” after completing training.

Here in the United States, the Americans With Disabilities Act (among other laws), give disabled individuals the right to utilize service animals. According to the ADA, staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the dog has been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

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There is no such thing as a legitimate ID card or certificate in the United States that “proves” a dog is a trained service dog. There are, however, many sites that claim that their products are not only legitimate but required. They are nothing more than a scam, seeing as one cannot buy into the federal law; that’s just not how it works. This misconception exists because of such scam sites.

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

This used to be the case many years ago, but since then, trainers have discovered that service dogs can help with an amazing variety of disabilities.  Today, service dogs are used by people with mental illnesses, autism, seizures, diabetes and countless other conditions.

3. Training only takes a few months.

Technically speaking, training is never over. Service dogs must be able to learn new things and adapt to their handler’s needs as they may change over time. Additionally, it is not uncommon for “fully trained” dogs to need a little bit of touch up work on things they’ve already learned how to do. From start to finish, it generally takes about two years to train a service dog. It’s very expensive and time-consuming, but certainly worth it in the end.

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4. Service dogs work all the time and never get time to “just be a dog.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth! Being a working dog is arguably the best life 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 and most get a higher quality of care than many humans. They get to play like any other dog.

5. Bully breeds can’t be service dogs.

Actually, a dog of any breed, shape or size can be a service dog, provided they have the right temperament and training. Many “unusual” breeds can make fantastic service dogs!

6. People with service dogs are lucky because they get to bring their dog everywhere with them.

At first glance, it’s understandable why someone might think this. However, the dog is there because the person has a disabling condition that impacts their major life functions. The dog helps the person be more independent, but they still have a disability.

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7. Service dogs know if there are any drugs on you.

One might be surprised by the number of people who are fearful of service dogs because they think they’re there for drug detection. Service dogs and detection dogs are completely different. Service dogs are not trained to detect drugs; they can smell them like any dog, but have never been taught to alert to the smell.

8. It’s OK 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 not to look, and they pet the dog as they walk by. Not only is this highly disrespectful, but it’s distracting to the dog who needs to be focused on working. Not to mention that in some cases, distracting a service dog is a crime.

9. People with service dogs always want to chat.

Sometimes, I just want to get milk and go; it shouldn’t take 20 minutes just to get through the store. People who often have good intentions ask rude and sometimes invasive questions out of curiosity. Service dog handlers just want what other shoppers want, to get their things and go. Just because they have a dog doesn’t mean they want to share their life story with nosy people.

10. Emotional support dogs are the same as service dogs.

There is a very clear legal difference between the two, and they shouldn’t be confused. An emotional support dog is legally defined as an untrained pet who emotionally supports their handler. With a doctor’s note, support dogs are allowed to fly in the cabin of an aircraft and live in no pets housing free of charge. However, a service dog is not legally defined as a pet, they are considered to be medical equipment like 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. Emotional support, comfort or calming effect do not count as work or tasks for a service dog.

11. Businesses are never allowed to have a service dog removed from the premises.

Just like disabled people, businesses have rights too. If a dog is out of control, acting aggressively or not housebroken, a business can and should ask that the dog be removed.

12. Any dog can be a service dog with training.

Most trainers agree that training is only half of what makes a good service dog. Genetics play a huge part in it as well. A service dog must be healthy and have a stable temperament to be able to do the work.

Next time you see a service dog team out and about, please ignore the dog and go about your business as you were. Maybe offer a smile, but remember not to disrupt the dog, and please don’t bother the handler with unnecessary or invasive personal questions.

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