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5 Reasons Small Dogs Are Underappreciated as Service Animals

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I once had a small service dog, an 8-pound black toy poodle named Ollie. He was a firecracker, so smart he learned commands in five minutes, so empathetic he knew when I was paralyzed by a panic attack. He had the uncanny ability to predict when my fibromyalgia was going to flare, and his alerts helped me make adjustments to my plans so I could be prepared when the debilitating pain and fatigue hit. Ollie calmed me and made it easier for me to navigate the world, and he did it from the comfort of my lap. With my physical limitations and tiny college apartment, a larger dog wasn’t at an option. Not that I wanted one; no dog could do what Ollie could do.

As a disabled woman, I am no stranger to discrimination, but the kind that always stuck with me the most was against Ollie. Many people thought he wasn’t a “real” service dog due to his size. It was a major point of contention for me all the way until his retirement. It made me question my own validity, my right to meet my own needs, my worth. If Ollie wasn’t a real disability dog, was I a real disabled owner? With the invisible nature of my disability and the history of doctors gaslighting fibromyalgia patients, I have grown accustomed to receiving doubt from outsiders. Still, this particular argument felt completely wrong to me; I believe in tiny service dogs and am frustrated that they have been left out of the disability narrative.

This came to light recently when I shared a lighthearted video of a sweet chihuahua helping clear debris from a hallway so an elderly woman could make it down the narrow space in her wheelchair. It was so lovely to see proof that small dogs are viable service animals, and I shared it with an online disability forum believing they would get the same lift I did. I didn’t expect any comments, I just hoped others would smile seeing yet another way animals are amazing in their quest to support us. But I was wrong: people had thoughts, and not the ones I had expected. They insinuated that small service dogs, such as chihuahuas, are frauds, that most people are just passing them off to take advantage of service dog protections, and that if someone wants a “real” service dog they would go for a Labrador or a golden retriever, the “gold standard” in service animals.

There are so many reasons why these arguments aren’t just inaccurate, they’re downright harmful. Primarily, it dismisses all of the benefits of having a small service dog, and removes them as an option for people living with disabilities. The reality is that small breeds make wonderful service dogs, and here are some of the reasons why.

1. They may be better at certain tasks.

Breeds are unique and have different dispositions and skillsets, and this affects what kinds of tasks they excel at. Some breeds are stronger, some more agile, some more energetic, some more steady. It is important for every person with a disability to consider what they need out of a service animal, because those needs will never be the exact same as someone else’s. A friend of mine and I both have fibromyalgia, and while I needed Ollie for psychological support and alerts, she needed a dog that would keep her from running into things and retrieve items when she dropped them. No two disabled bodies are the same, just as no two dogs are the same. And while larger breeds bring a lot to the table, there are some tasks they won’t excel at in the same way a small dog might.

2. They take up less space.

As I have experienced throughout my adulthood, space is often a luxury, especially if you are living on a fixed income. Less financial freedom often means smaller living spaces, such as apartments, trailers and condos. Sometimes there is no yard for a large dog to use, no space to maneuver around them in the home, especially with a mobility device. Yes, a service dog can be trained to be calm, to potty on walks, to move out of the way, but at the end of the day they are still an animal with needs and a predisposition. If I wanted a service dog who would be happy and focused on me, I knew I needed something apartment friendly. I chose a toy poodle due to their size, intelligence, eagerness to please, and lack of shedding since sweeping is very hard on my body. Had I selected a dog that outsiders deemed more “appropriate,” I would have had a dog that needed longer walks than I could manage and more fur than I could clean up.

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3. They can cost less to obtain.

Speaking of fixed or limited incomes, people with disabilities often struggle financially. Getting dogs from a breeder is expensive, prohibitively expensive in many cases. For some, the only option is to rescue a dog from a shelter. In those rows of metal cages, rarely is there is an abundance of America’s Most Popular Dogs. There are, however, tons of the breeds that tend to have a bit of a stigma attached to them, primarily chihuahuas and pitbull-type dogs. Given the high intelligence of these breeds, using them for service can be a great idea if their individual temperament is right. And of course, saving a dog from a shelter has more than a financial benefit. Doing so can also increase the duo’s sense of camaraderie, as many people with disabilities can relate to these canine outcasts who have been limited by how society perceives them. The idea of helping each other is empowering.

Once the dog is adopted, many people with disabilities opt to train their service dogs themselves to save money rather than relying on a company. Some, like myself, even prefer it this way, feeling that it strengthens their bond with their animal and helps the pair develop their own rhythm and language. Getting a small dog can make it easier to manage going through the growing pains of training; an untrained border collie has a very different physical impact than an untrained Jack Russell.

4. They often cost less to care for.

Beyond the initial cost of acquiring and training a dog, small dogs also tend to cost less to care for over the course of their life. When it comes to dog food, supplies and equipment, caring for a dog under 15 pounds can take less of a financial toll. Compare a small wire kennel for around $18 to a large wire kennel for around $40 and you get an idea of the financial difference between the two.

5. You may not have to say goodbye so soon.

Small dogs tend to live longer. On average, the pint-sized pups have a life expectancy of 12 to 14 years, while that number can be 8 to 10 for larger breeds. This ultimately can be a very important factor. The bond between a service dog and their person is very different from a standard pet. The pair works together, spends all their time together, must constantly read one another and meet one another’s needs. Many people, myself included have experienced the way a service dog can save your life when the struggles of living with a disability feel too heavy. This, coupled with the cost and effort of getting an effective service dog, means that replacing one is not easily done. It is important that service dogs live as long as possible, hopefully with as few health problems as possible, and for some that means small breed dogs are the better choice. Like any pet owner, estimated longevity should be considered when choosing the right service dog candidate.

I made many of these arguments in the comments of my video post. As I read through various replies, posters kept cycling back to the same argument: people often “pass off small dogs as service dogs.” Usually with stories like that, a small dog or other pet (like the infamous airline peacock) is at the center of the controversy. This has cast a shadow of doubt across every small breed service dog.

While this type of fraud does undoubtedly happen, the stories never reflect the whole truth: most of those animals are being passed off as emotional support animals on airplanes, which is not the same as a service animal protected by the ADA, and large dogs are fraudulently labeled as service animals as well. I have personally come face to face with that fact several times. Most recently when in a Goodwill store, I scooted past a larger black puppy in one of the aisles. He had no vest or harness, but I knew dogs weren’t allowed in the store, so I assumed this young puppy was a service dog in the beginning stages of training. With his floppy ears and gangly limbs, I endured the familiar struggle of wanting to cuddle with the adorable pup and needing to respect the sanctity of its role. I pushed past temptation and instead complimented the beauty of the dog to the owner as I passed.

When I was in the dressing room, the dog came under the door, no leash in sight, happy as could be to be free in the store. I scooped him up and opened the door to find the owner, obliviously perusing racks. I brought back the dog and tried to laugh it off, commenting that he would have to train that rambunctiousness out of the dog to get him ready for service. I still remember the conspiratorial smile on the owner’s face when he leaned towards me and said he wasn’t a service dog, the owner just had to pretend so he didn’t have to leave him in the truck where he might pee on the upholstery. This is only one example, and it is not an outlier. The frustration with the argument about impostor service dogs is that it rarely includes the larger “gold standard” dogs, which are just as capable of being fakes as the smaller breeds.

People are gravely concerned about “fake” service dogs; it is arguably one of the most policed aspects of disabled life. Society has one clear idea of what a service dog is, usually what’s been portrayed in the media, and if it doesn’t check that box, it must be fake. This judgment mirrors another major issue in the disabled community: being disabled “enough.”

For people with invisible disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health concerns, we are often viewed with a scathing eye, questioned and challenged about our disabled status because we do not “look” the way someone who is disabled “should” look. There is so little representation of disabled people in the media that people latch onto the only version of disability they understand: someone with a wheelchair, probing cane, or prosthetic limb. If someone does not possess an apparent physical disability, they are considered to be able-bodied, and can be automatically rejected from the disabled community.

Debating the legitimacy of one’s service dog is yet another way for society to criticize and demean disabled individuals who are just trying to function in a world that wasn’t built for them. It is easier and more comfortable to discredit someone’s disability or service animal than it is to come to terms with their existence. But this kind of policing against a group already so marginalized is harmful, creating yet another barrier for fair, equal opportunities.

Many people in the disabled community struggle to get their needs met because the fight to do so is too overwhelming. How many people with service dogs have been illegally challenged by restaurant owners, only to give up and leave without further action because the process to get justice is so convoluted and rarely goes the victim’s way? I have lost income, friends, and positive memories that make a difficult life worth living because I couldn’t get my needs met. A service dog is just one of the ways to meet those needs, but policing and criticism can take even that lifeline away.

As happens in so many marginalized communities, I found myself face to face with internal biases that divide my community. With so much against us, you would think we would stop gate-keeping one another, but rather trust that each individual is the expert in their own experience. Unfortunately, like the TERFS excluding trans women from the feminist narrative, sometimes even people with disabilities feel more confident when they can identify and alienate some kind of “other,” regardless of how being “othered” has made them feel when it was done to them. The comments on my video were just another example of this.

Generalizing that all small service animals are frauds based on a flawed narrative is a disservice to the people those generalizations claim to protect. More than that, lumping all similar things together and blaming the collective whole is a dangerous practice that never addresses the true problem. The bottom line is that people don’t understand the ADA and what exactly it stipulates, and this confusion and doubt causes tension. However, by understanding the law, those with disabilities and those without can do a better job of letting people peacefully go through their lives without exploitation.

To that end, Title III-4.2300 of the Americans With Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” There are no breed stipulations or size requirements — if a disabled person’s dog can perform a task, is potty trained, and doesn’t bark or “jeopardize the safe operation” of the business they’re in (such as by defecating indoors or running under someone’s changing room door) then any type of dog is fair game. In fact, even miniature horses make the cut (though sadly peacocks, ferrets and cats do not). So long as it will get the job done, size truly does not matter.

Ultimately, it is not the job of an individual to police another person’s disabled status, accommodations or service animal. If you know someone is fraudulently passing off a pet as a service animal, absolutely feel free to speak up, but you should never assume. More often than not, your understanding of the situation is flawed or incomplete, and jumping to conclusions not only makes you look foolish, it perpetuates a culture of discrimination and tells the individual you’re targeting that the world is no place for them. Just remember that as long as an animal meets the standards defined by the ADA, they qualify as a service animal, even if they look at home in a purse.

Getty image by Eudyptula.

Originally published: August 24, 2020
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