Guide Dogs, Service Dogs, and Misunderstandings

June 10, 2009 · Posted in Public Interaction, Service Dogs 

As a wheelchair user, you would think it would be pretty obvious when someone sees me with my dog that they would realize he is a service dog and not a pet. It is amazing to me the number of people who question my right to have a dog accompany me in public. Why do you have a dog? What does he do for you? These are the common questions that I hear over and over.

And, I always have to chuckle because it never fails when I wear sun glasses, someone asks if I am blind, and compliments me on my ability to successfully navigate my wheelchair with such ease. I have to explain that no, I am not blind and in fact, my dog is a service dog, not a guide dog. Meaning, he is trained to assist someone with mobility limitations like myself.

Recently, I was interviewing Isaiah Schaffer on Working Like Dogs at, an Iraqi war veteran who has a service dog, Meghan. Meghan helps Isaiah with the post traumatic stress disorder that he developed after serving three tours of duty of Iraq. I asked Isaiah how public access was for him and Meghan. He said it was even more an issue for him because at first glance, he looks "normal." That is, his disability is not visible. He said he has been stopped many times by store or restaurant owners and questioned about Meghan’s authenticity as a working dog.

For the most part, the general public only recognizes working dogs as guide dogs for people who are blind. But as many of us know, there are a growing number of dogs that are providing a variety of assistance to many people with disabilities such as hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, etc. The general public should be more aware of working dogs. People with disabilities have a right to have an animal assist them to be more independent and the general public has the right to expect us to be responsible dog handlers.


4 Responses to “Guide Dogs, Service Dogs, and Misunderstandings”

  1. Noddy Brothers on April 7th, 2010 12:00 pm

    I’m with Mr. Schaffer. My disability – severe hearing loss – is not visible. Worse, my signal dog is an adorable, fluffy, cute *little* dog. We’ve been together for 5 years now, and I can’t tell you how much he’s helped. He saved my life once by warning me of a truck backing out of an alley I didn’t see because we were in a strange city and I was gawking instead of paying attention. He alerts when I get text messages, when I don’t see the lights from police cars and ambulances when I drive, and when someone calls my name, among other things.

    We get stopped *all the time* and told I can’t take him in with me in spite of his patched service vest, tag, ID card, and leash that says “service dog” all along the length of it. One hotel I stayed at needed to make photocopies of his vet records, his ID, his tags, and they still had me followed all over the hotel the entire weekend of the conference and kept telling me “pets aren’t allowed”. It was so bad, it made the other conference attendees nervous and the conference organizers finally had a word with the hotel staff. They backed off a bit that year, and the following year the hotel staff was better trained and it was actually a pleasure to be there.

    I admit that because of that constant questioning, I sometimes leave him behind when I’m not feeling up to dealing with suspicious or aggressive door guards, security staff, and store employees, or I just don’t shop at the places I know will cause me problems. We’ve carved out a few regular places where we shop and eat, and they’re always happy to see us when we go there, but going to strange places can be an ordeal. When I’m out of town, I sometimes default to drive-thrus or ordering delivery.

  2. vernon Branch on April 11th, 2010 6:23 pm

    I too get tired of overzelous employees who charge me stating I can’t bring my Service dog inside. Sometimes they are bilegerent at other times, just confused. When it appears they are polite, I feal that I should educate them on the federal law. However when not so, i tell them that if heir behavior comtinues, I will call the police to get a statement of the incident to use in my civil rights suit that will likely cost them and their company a large amount of money. I have not yet had to call the police. It would be great if a group of service dog organizations banned tohether to provide community service announcements about our service dog rights.

  3. Barbara Drury on May 1st, 2010 1:25 pm

    I too use an assistance dog and don’t look disabled. I can appreciate the previous comments because I experience the same things. I have M.S. and other health issues, my dog assists me with mobility and balance thereby negating me the necessity of using a cane (and looking disabled).
    My dog is a Newfoundland, so his size calls attention – good and bad, my biggest problem is that everyone wants to pet him, take pictures with him etc. As I travel a good deal, I experience what it might be like to travel with a “rock star”- crowds literally follow us around. While I don’t mind people loving on him when we are at rest – it is his reward and he loves it, I do find that the constant attention wears him out. and me as well.
    I do feel that we have had the opportunity to educate many about other kinds of service dogs, it has become my form of “community service”, however, I would love to not have to constantly explain myself every time we go out.

    The silly thing is ( similar to the above comments), if I put on my sunglasses no one approaches us—we become strangely untouchable. Sometimes it is easier to get things done (or experience some privacy) if I let people think I am blind….I hate that, but it is reality.

    We have spent 1 1/2 years living/traveling in Europe and find that they are very accepting of service dogs, but do not understand the boundaries…it requires alot of patience and the ability to stand up politely for ones self, but I have found on the whole that having Teddy with me makes my experiences so much richer ~ I have an instant conversation starter and have met wonderful people that way. But there are too many days when I leave him home (esp in the States) and go out on my own because it is easier and several times injured myself…

    I don’t know what the answers are, except for education and determination and above all, being a good example for the other Service Dog handlers out there….we are very visible and need to always be on our best behavior.

  4. Karen Blair on May 24th, 2010 4:17 pm

    My daughter is hearing impaired and has a little fluffy service dog also…. she gets so much harassment in shops, forget about restaurants, she was even asked to leave THE PUBLIC LIBRARY (where you’d think they would be more informed). People ask her about “Clyde” and challenge her right to be there with him even when he’s in full gear, and then they get angry and aggressive when she can’t hear them, and doesn’t respond “normally”. It’s a challenge for her to get out and negotiate her day and “Clyde” is invaluable to her. I admire her and her little fluffy dog.

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