With Labor Day coming up, this is a great time to celebrate some of our unseen laborers, the service dog. Service dogs use to meant seeing eye dogs. The role of the service dog has greatly expanded and they have become more more common members of our society.

A service dog is a dog that helps someone with a disability. That dog has been trained to perform tasks specifically for the person with the disability. and has had specialized training for the disability. The disability can be mental or physical.

Kinds of Service Dogs

There are many different kinds of service dogs, and we don’t mean breeds, though there are many different breeds of service dogs as well.

  • Guide dogs that help people with vision problems from impairment to full blindness.
  • Hearing dogs to help deaf and hard of hearing people.
  • Mobility dogs that assist people in wheel chairs or with moving imparements.
  • Medical alert dogs that detect the onset of medical issues such as low blood sugar (diabetes), anaphylaxis, seizure.
  • Mental health dogs to help with OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, anxiety.

These dogs are working dogs, they are not pets. This can be confusing because we are use to dogs being pets. When these dogs are with their humans they are working. This means they are taking care of their human. Never pet a service dog without asking their human first. Many people do not want their dog to be distracted when they are working. Are they always working? No. They are given time off from work. Their “down time” is usually defined by the type of training they have.

The Bigger the Dog the Bigger the Service?

There are many different breeds of dogs that become service dogs. The size of the dog is important to the kind of service they are providing. You would not want to have a chihuahua pull a wheel chair but they could be good for PTSD or hearing services.

German Shepherds, Labs, and Golden Retrievers are the most common guide dogs.

The breed of the dog is less important than the training. These dogs are extensively trained to be desensitized to distraction, to be reliable, and perform very specific tasks. They are trained to only respond to their owners while they are working and to always be paying attention to their human in case the human becomes in need. Trying to distract a service dog is not like trying to get the Queen’s guard to smile. They are helping and protecting their human. Getting distracted could be dangerous to the health and safety of their human.

The Service Uniform

There is no required uniform for a service dog. If someone tells you their dog is a service dog and the dog is not wearing anything that does not mean that they are not a certified service dog. On the other side, a dog wearing a special harness or vest does not mean that dog is an actual service dog. A good example of this are emotional support animals. These are animals that are meant to provide comfort to their human and help with many mental/emotional conditions such as anxiety, but these dogs are not trained as service dogs. For the dog to qualify as a service dog they have to be trained in specific tasks related to the disability. Being a comforting presence is highly valuable but does not qualify as a true service dog. Therapy dogs are the same as emotional service dogs. They provide happiness and comfort and provide incredibly valuable services but they are not official service dogs.

Training a Service Dog

A service dog is not required to be professionally trained. Anyone can train a service dog. There are also training classes you can take to train your service dog.

If you are considering training your own service dog you want to look for certain qualities in the dog:

  • Calm in unfamiliar settings
  • Alert or paying attention without being reactive
  • Smart
  • Good in a variety of different situations and enviornments
  • Reliable and consistent
  • An interest in pleasing their human

If you are interested in getting a service dog, there are a lot of trainers/breeders out there that can match you with your perfect service dog to fit your specific disability.

On this labor day as we recognize the hard working people of this country, especially our essential workers who have been showing up to work in the face of Covid-19, lets remember that our service dogs are essential workers too.