Why You Should Never Misrepresent Your Pet As A Service Dog

I had a working service dog for all 12 years of his life — until last June. I adopted him from a Lab rescue in 2013 after I was discharged from inpatient eating disorder treatment. I knew that I wanted to train a service dog for my medical and psychiatric conditions, but I didn’t know the journey I was about to embark on. That journey was worth every second. 

Ector was about a year old when I adopted him. Both men and cars scared him, so for a full week, he refused to leave my condo. I took him into public way too soon, and I  had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, Ector was incredibly resilient, and we worked on getting over his fears with the help of a couple of service dog trainers. 

Ector learned to paw at my leg to alert me to high heart rates. He also learned to lie on top of me and stay still when I felt anxious. My service dog could also bring items to me and stand behind me in lines to put distance between me and others. Due to my years of eating disorder behaviors, wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom without a buddy. He was a smart old soul. Ector and I were soulmates. 

My service dog wasn’t always working, though. I gave him off-leash walks in the woods, where he would chase chipmunks and dig holes. He also loved pulling the stuffing out of his toys. Kissing my face was his favorite thing in the world. 

When Ector passed away, I wasn’t sure that I’d make it. My heart couldn’t take it —  every time I came home, I burst into tears because my dog wasn’t there to greet me. 

Miraculously, another service dog training organization  reached out to me, and within six weeks, I had white-yellow Lab. He was the cutest little floppy-eared puppy. I had no idea what I was in for, though, because I had never raised a puppy. 

But Blizzard and I immediately bonded. We started with potty training, loose leash-walking, and basic obedience training — but it was a long process. My new puppy chewed through every cord I owned, several crocheted heads, and plenty of knitting needles. Blizzard even got to my shoes, underwear, and pants.  None of that mattered, though, — I was in love. 

Next, we worked on tasks to mitigate my disabilities. I started my dog on scent training and trained him to alert for high heart rate and fainting. I taught him to lick my lips until I “come to” and to press a 911 button. Blizzard learned to open accessible doors and low cupboards, take off my socks and shoes, and pick up the items that I drop.

Six months later, we started training in public. I trained Blizzard much more slowly than I trained Ector, but he soon learned to stay in a tight heel for increasing incremental periods of time. Once he was nine months old, we increased his training. Now, Blizzard just turned a year old, and according to our trainer, he’s fully trained and only needs maintenance training.In under a year, I trained a great service dog with a ton of help from my dog walkers, our training program and my parents. 

Training a service dog isn’t easy. It requires you to live with a treat pouch on at all times. It takes making every encounter into a fun training opportunity. It also means continuous training to keep up his skills and improve them even further. Every time Blizzard does a task for me, whether at home or in public, it’s a form of training. Not every dog can become a service dog because some dogs don’t have the patience to go through constant training or the desire to obey. Training a service dog is a full-time job, and being a service dog means working around the clock.

This is why you should never pass your pet off as a service dog. Pet dogs don’t have the same continuous training that service dogs do, so they don’t belong in “no-dog” environments. They can easily misbehave and distract or injure actual service dogs who need to help their owners in public. This is why it’s dangerous to bring untrained pets — including emotional support animals (ESAs) — in public spaces that are only meant for service animals. People with disabilities have enough barriers in society — we shouldn’t have to worry about other people’s pets injuring our service dogs — or us. 

Similarly, no matter how cute service dogs may look, please don’t pet them. When you pet a service dog, it distracts them, and the dog could miss important alerts that something is amiss with their handler’s health. This could cause the handler to have injuries or health complications. When a service dog isn’t wearing a service dog vest, it may be okay to pet them, but you should always ask their owner if it’s fine first.

Service dogs have training to mitigate their owners’ specific disabilities. Some service dogs will alert others to their health symptoms, but please don’t count on someone else’s service dog identifying and alerting you to your symptoms. You’ll need to get your own dog extensive specialized service dog training for them to become a service dog.

Having a service dog is a huge responsibility. It requires nonstop training and involves lots of unwanted attention and dog-petting from strangers. But for service dog handlers, the health benefits typically outweigh the challenges. Service dogs are lifelines for many, but mine is even more than that. He’s not just a “health alert;” he’s my best friend and soulmate.

Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash


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