What I Wish People Understood About Service Dogs for Invisible Disabilities


It was a cold and wintry afternoon — slate-grey clouds crowded the sky, spitting tiny snowflakes onto the rush-hour crowd heading into the grocery store. I waded through the crowd of people taking grocery carts, and made my way to the front door. Suddenly, just before I stepped over the threshold, a woman – in the most indignant voice – asked “Why would you bring a dog in here?”

I was stunned momentarily, although I shouldn’t have been; this wasn’t the first time. People tend to think service dogs are only for blind people, and people in wheelchairs. My dog – who has since joined a host of other dogs over the rainbow bridge – didn’t wear a typical service dog vest. He always got overheated, so he wore a simple harness, with a rather large ID card attached to it. Also, his leash was printed with “Service Dog” in bold letters.

I said, “He’s a service dog,” to which she immediately replied, looking me up and down, “You don’t need a dog.” After my thoughts stuttered for another second, I said to her, “Well, you can’t see the traumatic brain injury I sustained, or the host of issues it’s caused.” I then pushed my cart, Sampson faithfully by my side, into the store.

Who Can Use a Service Animal

The truth is, service dogs can help with a seemingly infinite number of problems that result from people’s disabilities; and disabilities can’t always been seen by people around us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) defines a person with a disability as:

“[A] person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

In addition, the ADA defines a service animal as:

“… any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Since 2011, Title II of the ADA has limited the type of animal that may be considered a service animal to dogs — except in certain cases in which a miniature horse may be used to assist with severe stability problems.

Service animals are specifically trained to do work, or perform tasks, that mitigate their human partner’s disability. This is an important distinction. Service animals do things that enable their partners to take part in their lives — to be more independent. Disability issues include physical, psychiatric, sensory, intellectual, mental, and other types of disability.

Service dogs can perform an astonishingly wide variety of tasks, though these must be directly related to the person’s disability. These include such tasks as:

  • Guide a visually-impaired partner
  • Alert a hearing-impaired partner to sounds
  • Alert a diabetic partner of impending blood sugar problem
  • Alert a partner of an impending seizure
  • Get help for a partner, including alerting another human, or pressing a button to call 9-1-1
  • Pull a wheelchair
  • Open/close doors
  • Press elevator buttons
  • Turn lights on/off
  • Pull a partner to help him or her stand
  • Retrieve items from the floor, cupboards, and other places
  • Remind a partner to take vital medication

Emotional Support Animals

There has been some confusion about the role of “emotional support animals,” also known as “comfort animals.” While dogs who fill these roles provide a valuable service to their humans, they are not considered service animals under Titles II and III of the ADA. Similarly, therapy dogs – dogs trained to be taken into such places as hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities – are not considered to be service animals. This means that they are not afforded the same rights of access as service dogs.

Emotional support animals are, however, to be allowed in housing. This is governed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), under the Fair Housing Act. Having a letter from a doctor stating that the individual requires an emotional support animal does not turn the animal into a service animal. It may, however, serve as necessary documentation to certain housing providers of the individual’s need to live with the animal.

Can They Ask That?

Certainly, asking someone “Why would you bring a dog in here,” is not the way to address a question of whether a dog is a service animal. In fact, the ADA protects the privacy and other rights of disabled people, prohibiting establishments from asking what a person’s disability is. There are two questions that may be asked in order to determine whether a person and his/her service dog must be allowed to enter:

  1. Is this a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or tasks is the animal trained to perform?

These rules are for public establishments, not for every person who may rudely ask about a dog accompanying someone in a public place. In this woman’s defense, the town in which we lived had a serious problem of people simply saying their dogs were service dogs so they could take them with them wherever they wanted. Not only is this illegal in many states, but it makes life difficult for those of us who legitimately need and use service dogs.

Just Curious

Fortunately, I have had far more people ask about my dog because they are curious, than because they are passing judgment on me. People ask about everything from what my dog does for me, to where Uncle Joe can get a service dog too. And there is a nearly endless stream of people who want to pet my chocolate lab, Hershey, because “He’s so cute!” None of them consider that I might just need to get what I’m here for and get home – or that I might be late – or that at least a dozen other people have stopped me to ask questions before them. It’s OK – as 125 pounds of cuddle, he definitely is cute.

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Thinkstock image by JM Paget.


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