Grace Adams' service dog Tinkerbell

Service dogs are important to the lives of many disabled people, giving them independence and keeping them safe. Eckerd’s community has students and faculty with service dogs and it can be frustrating when others don’t know how to act around service dogs, or understand their important role in their handlers’ lives. 

Service dogs are working dogs trained to perform “tasks” to help a disabled person, known as their handler. Service dogs can be trained to guide people with vision impairments, assist with mobility by retrieving items, perform alerts to low blood sugar or high heart rate, or an oncoming panic attack, as well as countless other tasks for their handlers. This differentiates them from Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, which do not perform tasks, nor do they require any formal training. ESAs do not have public access rights, while service dogs are guaranteed access under the ADA, as long as they are under control. 

#1 Service dogs make mistakes

 Service dogs are still dogs, and can’t be perfect all the time. When her dog makes mistakes, sophomore animal studies and psychology major Grace Adams said it feels like people are judging her and think her dog, Tinkerbell, is a “fake” service dog.

When people lie about their dog being a service dog so they can bring them into a public place illegally, it casts doubt on real service dogs whose handlers rely on them. It is okay if a service dog barks once, or gets distracted for a moment, as long as their handler is able to redirect them, and they are not posing a danger to those around them.

Alyssa Bernstein, a senior biology major, feels similarly to Adams. 

“It’s difficult when you’re trying to train a dog, and be in school, and you feel the judgment of your peers on top of everything, it’s just a lot,” said Bernstein.


Alyssa Bernstein's dog Rosie


#2 Service dogs are a tool

 You should never pet a service dog without asking, and know when an appropriate time to ask is. For example, when a handler is busy running errands, or in the middle of a conversation, that is not an appropriate time to ask to pet their dog. It is okay to politely ask if you are already engaging with the handler, or they do not appear busy. Always take no for an answer. 

Some dogs have patches on their vests that say things like, “interactions stress handler,” or “give us space.” These are indications that you should not approach this team or ask to pet the dog at all.

Service dogs are there to support their handler, not for others’ entertainment.

 “People wouldn’t come up and say, can I pet your wheelchair?” Wendy, a volunteer with New Horizons Service Dogs, said. New Horizons trains dogs for veterans, people with mobility issues, and children with autism. The dog becomes a tool for them to function more independently in society.

 It is also not okay to distract a service dog. Making kissy noises or talking to a service dog can distract them. A disabled person could get hurt if their dog is distracted by someone, said Wendy.

 Lots of people on campus are familiar with Bernstein’s dog, and have interacted with her while she is off-duty. However, this does not mean it is always appropriate to pet her.

 “It’s incredibly frustrating when people are distracting my dog when we’re trying to be in class,” said Bernstein. 

Some service dog handlers are OK with people petting their dog while they are working. Nancy Janus, professor of human development, lets her students pet her dog Fajita, because she is still able to do her job of picking up items and bringing them back to her.

 #3 Service dogs save lives 

Service dogs perform life saving work for their handlers. Tinkerbell alerts Adams when her heart rate gets too high and performs deep pressure therapy to make it go back down. Once, while Adams was sleeping, Tinkerbell woke her up to alert her that her heart rate was too high, and they were able to go to the hospital. 

“I probably would have died,” Adams said. 

Similarly, Rosie alerts Bernstein when she is going to faint. 

“I would be dead if I didn’t have her,” Bernstein said. 


Ellis West's service dog Arthur

#4 Service dogs give people independence

 Disabled people struggle in aspects of daily life most people don’t even think about. 

“Very often people with disabilities feel like they can’t get out and be part of society,” Wendy said.  

With Tinkerbell, Adams feels safe going to the grocery store alone. Because Janus’s hands don’t work, having Fajita retrieve items for her is immeasurably helpful.

 “[Rosie] gave me my independence back,” Bernstein said.


#5 Asking what a service dog is for is a personal question

 While some handlers are okay telling people what their dog does for them, disability is very personal, and this question can be uncomfortable. It is even more uncomfortable when people you have never met before ask this question.

 Ellis West, a sophomore with service dog Arthur, said, “I had two boys come up to me on bikes and ask me what he was for, without even asking my name.”

An exception is businesses are entitled to ask handlers what tasks their service dog performs, if it is not apparent. They may not, however, ask what disability the handler has.

 #6 Not all disabilities are visible

 Adams, Bernstein and West all have “invisible disabilities” but their dogs still perform important work. 

Bernstein recounts a time she went to the grocery store alone with Rosie, who alerted her that she was about to faint. “Knowing she kept me safe in that moment… that was one of the first times I realized her importance.” 

People often assume Bernstein is training Rosie for someone else, and assume those without obvious disabilities are faking their service dog in order to bring their pet with them in public. 

#7 Any breed can be a service dog 

There is no breed requirement for service dogs. Service dogs trained for medical alerts can be small dogs, while people with mobility issues usually need larger dogs to help them. Just because a dog is not a breed you are used to seeing as a service dog, doesn’t mean they are not a trained service animal. 

Fajita and Arthur are both golden retrievers, which are a common service dog breed, but Tinkerbell and Rosie are mixed breeds. 

#8 People can train their own service dogs

While there are nonprofits that provide service dogs to disabled people for free, the waitlists can be long, and many disabilities are excluded. Dogs from paid programs can cost more than $20,000, and many people cannot afford this. It is legal for a disabled person to train their dog themselves, and it can take two to five years to fully train a service dog. 

“Training a service dog is a long and rigorous process,” Bernstein said, who trained Rosie herself. It is even more important to be compassionate to service dogs in training when they make mistakes, Bernstein added.

Bernstein trained Rosie in basic obedience, then boarded her with a trainer when she was five months old for a few months to learn tasks. After her boarding, Bernstein finished Rosie’s training. Adams trained Tinkerbell entirely on her own, using the American Kennel Club as a guidelin. First, they worked on passing the Canine Good Citizen tests, then worked on public access and task training. Adams spent two hours every day for about a year and a half before she was confident Tinkerbell was fully trained.  

Due to the extensive time and cost of training a service dog, it is not a decision to be made lightly. A service dog was recommended to Bernstein by her doctors, and for many people, as a last resort. Having a service dog is a lot of responsibility, and can cause more stress, due to people coming up to them in public, businesses refusing access, and the responsibility of making sure the dog’s needs are met. 

#9 There are no certifications for service dogs

 The legal requirements for service dogs are that they are trained to work or perform tasks to mitigate their handler’s disability, are housebroken, and are under control. Service dog IDs and certifications are not legally binding, and they are not required to wear vests in public. It’s the training that makes a dog a service dog.

There are websites selling certifications and ID cards for service dogs, but these are not legally binding. Buying a certification for an untrained pet, and presenting it for access at businesses can make life harder for service dog handlers, because businesses might assume dogs without certifications are fake service dogs. This is not only incredibly disrespectful to the time and energy put into training a service dog, either by an organization or handler, it trivializes the work service dogs do to help their disabled handler.


#10 Having a service dog is a positive experience 

While being disabled can be difficult, having a service dog can be a silver lining. 

Working with New Horizons has changed Wendy’s perspective on people with disabilities and the service dog community.

“Watching their lives transform because of these animals has just been amazing,” said Wendy.

Janus became disabled later in life, eleven years ago, and has had to learn to live with a disability. 

“It’s not the life I ever expected as an older person. My hands don’t work, and it’s endlessly frustrating. 

Having a service dog has brought positivity to Janus’s struggles with disability. “She brings a bright spot into my day. No matter how bad I feel, she always makes me feel better.”

You may have seen Skyler Paoli with his service dog, Friday, around campus. Paoli and his mom worked alongside a professional trainer for over a year to train Friday to perform tasks to mitigate his disability. Some of this reporting comes from Paoli’s personal experience.


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