By Kelly Cook, Forum contributor
A service dog lives in the South Royalton area with his handler, who attends Vermont Law School. This dog’s name is Rue, and he is a black-tri Australian Shepherd. Specifically, Rue is a psychiatric service dog. A service animal is a dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
There is a difference between a “trick” and a “task.” If the trained behavior does not aid in the handler’s disability, it is a trick. A task can be performed in direct response to a specific command or automatically cued by external factors. Most importantly, the trained task must directly mitigate one or more of the handler’s disabilities. Rue knows twelve separate “tricks,” and he knows over 40 “tasks,” such as: alert, find, guide, interruption, movement, and provision.
Rue will “alert” me in several different ways, including a nudge, pawing, whining, licking, and various levels of a bark. This is done for a variety of reasons. For example, he will alert me if a person, object, or animal is coming up behind me or in a blind spot. This is to prepare me for their presence. This mitigates my startle response, which lowers the chances of me having an attack because I will not be surprised. Rue will “interrupt” for multiple reasons as well. He is picking up on external cues that I might not know I am giving off, which is why he needs to keep his concentration. He can hear changes in my breathing and feel negative changes in my behavior. An example that goes hand and hand with my breathing cues is if, for example, I am on the verge of an anxiety/panic attack, my breathing will change. Rue will interrupt these attacks and try to ground me back to the present.
A service dog’s training is never complete. Daily training helps with experience and creating a deeper bond of trust between dog and handler. Sometimes, due to the alteration in the handler’s health conditions, a service dog will need to learn new tasks to further assist their handler. Rue is currently learning new tasks, and we are often out on the green or walking around town as we train. Rue is still learning, and even the most experienced service dogs have off days. They are not robots; they are living creatures.
There are legal consequences to the harassment of and/or interference with a service dog and their duties. There can also be legal consequences for falsely presenting one’s dog as a service animal.
There is a difference between service, emotional support, and therapy animals—they are not interchangeable. Some states have created laws allowing emotional support animals public access, which includes anywhere the public can go. However, most states, including Vermont, just allow service animals to have public access. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go. An employee or business owner can only ask two questions when determining if a dog is a service animal. First, staff may ask if the dog is a service animal required because of a disability. Second, staff may ask what work or task the dog has been trained to perform. Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access to a handler and their dog, and there are only two reasons a service animal can be asked to leave the premises: (1) if the dog is out of control and the handler does not take actions to control the dog, and (2) if the dog is not housebroken.
Recently, Rue and I had a few experiences that have unfortunately made it clear that people do not understand proper service dog etiquette. Recently, we were in the post office and an individual stood directly by the door while we tried to exit. One of Rue’s tasks is to work as a barrier between myself and other people. This ensures that I have plenty of room and can mitigate my symptoms. Rue moved towards the individual while I approached the door to maximize the area I had to move in. Unfortunately, the individual did not move aside and instead took this as an invitation and began to “baby talk” to Rue. Next, Rue and I sat on the green, continuing our desensitization training. This training is beneficial for both of us since we are in a new location, and Rue is learning new tasks. While we sat on the green, someone purposefully let go of their dog’s leash. Rue alerted me with a bark, which he is trained to do in cases of faster-moving objects because it gains my attention the quickest. We left the situation, but it took Rue a few moments to gain his full concentration back.
Above all, respect a service dog. They have a job to do. Do not touch, do not talk, do not make eye contact when a service dog is on duty. You do not know what the handler’s disability is, as not all disabilities are visible, so please give service dogs and their handlers plenty of room. You could potentially break a service dog’s concentration, which means they might miss an alert that is crucial to their handler. We understand that you do not mean any harm, but unfortunately, if a service dog misses a necessary alert, it could have severe and even deadly consequences. There are plenty of stories about the horrors of what can happen if you break a service dog’s concentration. This etiquette applies to your four-legged friends as well. By letting your dog run freely, pull towards, or act aggressively towards Rue, the same consequences could result because Rue has to split his focus between his job and potentially his safety.
The best thing anyone can do is to educate themselves and learn more about unfamiliar topics.
If you would like to learn more here are a few sites that Rue recommends:
Table of State Service Animal Laws
Have questions for Kelly and Rue? They can be reached at email@example.com
Thank you for writing and sharing this article. Not only does it help inform people about service dog etiquette, but it also illuminates that “not all disabilities are visible” both important topics and areas not well understood.