More Than a Family Pet: What Makes a Service Dog

By Brandon Vogel

More Than a Family Pet: What Makes a Service Dog


By Brandon Vogel


Wearing a service dog vest purchased on Amazon does not make a service animal.

The vest is just one component of a service animal. It involves intense and personalized training between a handler, a dog, a serviceman or servicewoman, and a commitment to improving the lives of veterans.

Chad Lennon, director of the Veterans and Servicemembers’ Rights’ Clinic, said that service dogs “have become more prevalent in the veterans’ community and with great results.”

“Service dogs provide a much-needed service for veterans. It is emerging. It is new. We are learning our way through this together in the veterans community,” said Lennon on the recent CLE Webinar, “Service Animals And Service Members: Understanding The Legal Requirements And Challenges.”

What service dogs do

Common disabilities for veterans include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, dizziness and panic attacks.

With PTSD, dogs are trained to pick up on the acute signals that someone with PTSD gives.

Service dogs can perform tasks such as reminding a veteran to take medication, prevent impulsive behavior, calm a veteran down from a flashback or anxiety attack, as well as wake up a veteran having a nightmare. “Service dogs are just that, providing a service and are not a general pet,” said Lennon.

Lennon noted that not every serviceman and servicewomen reacts the same to a dog intervening, so therapists will work with the veteran to identify the best way for a dog to mitigate any trauma.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not provide service dogs. Lennon said that veterans have to obtain them on their own, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some veterans organizations will provide dogs to veterans for free.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is one that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people living with disabilities. Service dogs shall be allowed to enter a place where food is prepared or served regardless of state or local codes. A dog in training does not have the same protections under the ADA as a service dog. A dog without a harness or vest is considered to be off-duty.

Dogs may be asked to leave public places only if they misbehave. Businesses that charge additional fees for pets must waive these fees for service dogs or face serious consequences and penalties. Service dogs qualify as reasonable accommodations under the ADA, including housing and education.

Likewise, the ADA does not provide protection for emotional support dogs, because the Department of Justice does not view emotional support as a job the dog can perform. Emotional support is not considered work or a task and therefore, an emotional support dog cannot be a service dog, nor do they have the protections a service dog has.

No snakes on this plane

Christopher L. Sweetwood, American Kennel Club Board of Directors, said people abused the privilege of emotional support animals by trying to bring animals from peacocks to horses to rattlesnakes on airplanes, claiming they were needed for emotional support.

“That didn’t go over well with the public nor the airlines,” said Sweetwood. “The widespread abuse hurts the disabled. The accommodations have to be reasonable.”

The public then confuses verified service dogs with emotional support dogs, he said. “It’s not the veterans. The fakes are giving us a bad name.”

Cats and small dogs have never been an issue, he said. Lennon noted that service dogs tend to be larger, such as German Shepherds or Labrador Retrievers, because they can help balance larger veterans with mobility issues. “A mini Schnauzer cannot be there for someone with a traumatic brain injury.”

The American Kennel Club has partnered with service dog organizations and disability advocates to improve public access for service dogs and veterans, as well as teach employees of major event venues and hotels to better differentiate service dogs from emotional support dogs.

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