5 things you might not know about service dogs (including why it’s REALLY WRONG to pretend your dog is one)

Marty and Adele from Adele and Everything After

September is National Service Dog Month, a time when we celebrate the work done by service animals of all kinds to help people live richer and more fulfilled lives. We’ll spend this month sharing our service dog movie, Adele and Everything After, and using it as an opportunity to spread awareness about service dogs.

Before I made Adele and Everything After, a movie about a woman with an untreatable heart condition and the service dog who transforms her life, I was representative of most of the population in that I didn’t know much about service dogs. My goal for the movie is to educate people about service dogs, because most of us have no idea exactly what they do, how they’re trained, the best way to interact with them and, most of all, why it’s REALLY WRONG AND MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE to pretend that your pet dog is a service dog.

Here are some of the big things I learned about service dogs while making this movie, and why they’re important for everyone to know:

1. Not all dogs can be service dogs, not all service dogs can be alert dogs and not all service dogs are for blind people.

I thought all service dogs were “seeing eye dogs.” Yes, there are service dogs that help blind people, but today, we know that dogs are capable of providing assistance to people with a wide range of conditions. This includes heart conditions, like in the case of Marty who stars in our documentary, as well as seizures, diabetes, chronic disorders like fibromyalgia, PTSD and diagnosed mental health issues, autism and many, many more.

Not all dogs are cut out to be service dogs, and even among service dogs, not all dogs have the capability of being “alert dogs” like Adele, i.e. dogs that let their owners know when they are at risk of a seizure, fainting or other symptom of their condition. The ability to alert is an inherent trait that a dog either has or doesn’t have.

Even if a dog has the capability to sense and alert for conditions, that doesn’t mean it’s definitely cut out to become a service dog. It also needs to have the right temperament and trainability. So in short, only some dogs are cut out to be service dogs and among those, even a smaller percentage are cut out to be alert service dogs. Which is why dogs like Adele are so special.

2. No one knows exactly how alert dogs can do what they do

When people witness that alert dogs can sense when their owners are about to have a seizure or pass out, one of their first questions is “how do the dogs do it?”

The answer is that no one knows for sure. Scientific studies have so far been inconclusive, but most researchers postulate that the ability is linked to either sense of smell or sense of hearing: in dogs, both of these senses are highly tuned, far beyond human capabilities.

Think about how your dog sometimes seems to know when a storm is coming, or responds to the sound of someone coming to the door long before you hear any footsteps. It might be the same way with alert dogs being able to smell or hear changes that happen before someone is about to have a seizure or pass out. The signs are so subtle that the person who is about to have the seizure doesn’t sense it, but the dog does.

3. Service dogs are highly trained

I didn’t know the extent of training that many service dogs go through: Adele was bred by Pennsylvania-based Canine Partners for Life, and underwent more than two years of training there, including stints in two separate prison facilities where she was trained as part of CPL’s Puppy Prison Program, a beneficial initiative for the dogs as well as the inmates who have the opportunity to bond with the animals and know they’re making a contribution to other peoples’ lives.

CPL teaches their service dogs to perform a range of tasks that their eventual owners may need helps with; from assisting with laundry to paying a cashier. Beyond the training that the dogs go through, CPL holds twice-annual “team training”, where service dog recipients and their dogs spend three, intensive weeks getting acquainted each other and learning everything they need to know to form a successful and long-lasting partnership. Some of the highs and lows of team training are depicted in Adele and Everything After.

At CPL’s team training, service dogs perfect skills to help their owners. Photo credit: Dave Osberg Photography

In short, service dogs from CPL, and other similar organizations, are more highly trained for their jobs than many human professionals are for theirs.

4. It’s against the rules to pat service dogs, with really good reason

Most service dogs wear a vest and harness that warns passers-by not to pat them. There’s a reason for that: because these dogs need to remain focused on the job they’re doing, which in many cases is protecting someone’s safety.

If you break the rules and pat a working service dog, you’re not just annoying the person who owns the dog, you’re potentially putting that person’s life in danger.

For example, Marty’s dog lets her know when her heart condition may cause her to faint. If the dog is distracted and misses the signs, it puts Marty at risk of fainting and injuring herself.

Patting a working service dog isn’t cool, so don’t ask. I’ve been out with Marty and watched her have to stop and explain to dozens of people in one outing why they can’t pat her dog. I can’t imagine how awkward and exhausting it is for her.

5. Speaking of not cool, if you buy one of those vests off the internet and use it to pretend your dog is a service dog so you can get it into places where it shouldn’t be, you might be a really bad person. Seriously.

Under the guidelines set out in the Americans with Disabilities Acts, service dogs are allowed to go anywhere their owners go. Business owners are allowed to ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

And that’s it. They can’t ask you anything else by law, and if you’re able to answer, they can’t prevent you from entering.

I read articles every week about restaurants, offices, airlines and stores preventing people from entering with their service dogs and I believe a major reason for that is because people are bringing their fake service dogs into establishments and those dogs are misbehaving. This gives real service dogs a bad rap.

CPL service dogs are trained so they don’t bark or get aggressive, even in situations where a normal dog might do so. When in a store or a restaurant, a trained service dogs rests quietly. They don’t beg for table food, ever. They don’t try to run and play with other dogs. They don’t seek out attention or affection from passersby. They behave better than most people I encounter out in the world, in fact.

Chances are your pet dog, no matter how well trained, will never behave as well as a trained service dog. And when business owners see a dog in a “service vest” growling, peeing on the floor or behaving boisterously, they are less likely to trust and accommodate people with real service dogs, like Marty, who always has her service dog by her side to keep her safe.

If you shrug it off and tell yourself it’s ok to pass off Rover as a service dog so you don’t have to pay for his plane ticket or to avoid leaving him at home during brunch, let me ask you this question: would you fake a broken leg to board a plane first or tell someone you had a terminal illness to get a better seat at an event? No way, right? That would be pretty disgusting behavior.

Well, it’s the same thing when you lie about your pup being a service dog. You’re faking having an illness, you’re putting other people at risk and it’s super shady. Don’t do it. Period.

If you want to learn more about service dogs and the tremendous impact they have on lives, visit adeleandeverythingafter.com to learn more about this movie or catch one of our upcoming screenings at Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival, Harrisburg Hershey Film Festival, Cape Cod International Film Festival or the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.

Melissa Dowler is the director of Adele and Everything After, a feature documentary about a woman with an untreatable heart condition and the service dog who transforms her life, produced by Long Haul Films. Want to stay up-to-date with news about upcoming screenings, service dogs and our filmmaking journey? Text DOG to 44144 or go to adelemovie.com/subscribe

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.