Human/Animal Bond

Serving the Service Dog

Babysitting a service dog involves complexities that don’t arise with other pets

April 14, 2017 (published)

service dog human hospital

There is a rug under my desk masquerading as a golden retriever – or is it the other way around? At the moment, Cricket is doing exactly what a working dog should in a situation involving long periods of waiting. He is out of the way, being still and quiet (except for the occasional snore). The cardboard shards giving my office carpet a new mosaic look tell a slightly different story. Sometimes the well-behaved service dog is supplanted by his alter-ego, the high-energy 20-month-old intact male retriever.

I’m not Cricket’s working partner nor am I his veterinarian. My role in his life is something more like eccentric aunt. At the moment, his partner/owner is in the hospital getting a new transmission and oil change. Since the hospital environment can be stressful for humans, let alone young dogs, Cricket typically only accompanies Caroline for short-duration medical visits. While some service dogs stay with their humans during hospitalization, the logistics of exercising, entertaining, and attending to the mental and physical needs of these pups becomes substantially more difficult in high-intensity medical settings. So while Caroline and her parents thread their way to the heart of the bureaucratic maze in hopes of slaying the Minotaur, or at least getting him to perform the necessary procedures in a timely fashion, Cricket is staying with me and reminding my offspring exactly how much work a dog can be.

Babysitting Cricket involves complexities that don’t arise when I look after other pets. In addition to the obvious Keep Dog Alive and Well mandate, I also feel a responsibility not to break his training. This means curbing many of my lenient aunt tendencies. Although we still rampage and roughhouse (shhhhhh…don’t tell…) a couple of times a day, when he is out in public, he and I both have to remember our manners. I need to remember to stop people before they pet him and make sure he is paying attention to me before he succumbs to the golden retriever ecstasy of ATTENTION. I try to have him behave with me as he would with Caroline – sitting when we stop, waiting for the okay rather than barging through a door, lying quietly under my desk while I’m working. And it means I need to pay attention to signs of stress on his part. The level of socialization and stimulation a service dog experiences is often far beyond that of a typical house/yard pet. Before hanging out with Caroline and Cricket, I had no idea that many service dogs “wash out” of work due to the stress of constantly being in the public eye.

Before Caroline and Cricket, there was an awful lot I didn’t know about service dogs (SDs) or emotional support animals (ESAs). While Cricket snores at my shoes, let’s bust some of the myths around these working animals.

Did you know there is no such thing as a legal “certification” for either a service dog or an ESA?

Those fancy vests or tags on the leash? Those don’t really do anything other than provide a visual cue to other people that this is a working animal. There is no official organization that certifies all service dogs; online registries don’t mean anything from a legal standpoint, nor do ID cards.

Caroline, a veterinary student on medical hiatus, has done more research on this topic than Hercules did tasks for Zeus, so I’m going to borrow from her giant suitcase of knowledge as we go through this:

The relevant laws protect people with disabilities whose disability is mitigated by an emotional support animal or service dog. (Key words: “people”, “disabilities”, and “mitigated” – the last word refers to a benefit to the person that is determined by that person and their medical team; a veterinarian has no professional standing to determine whether the animal is helping mitigate the disability).

The Fair Housing Act allows service dogs and emotional support animals in non-pet housing. A housing provider may ask for a letter from a medical professional if the disability and need for the dog are not obvious; the tenant must request reasonable accommodation.

Air Carrier Access Act allows ESAs, SDs (service dogs). A letter from mental health professional is required for ESAs and psychiatric service dogs. (Again, that’s a HUMAN mental health professional; your veterinarian has nothing to do with this part.)

Americans with Disabilities Act and Amendment Act grants:

Equal access to publicly funded programs, all businesses for SD handlers

SD, ESA may be a reasonable accommodation at a job.

ESA may be reasonable accommodation in higher education.

Neither an SD nor an ESA is a PET. They are assistance animals and are not subject to pet fees/deposits, breed restrictions, etc. They must still be vaccinated and licensed.

Did you know that an emotional support animal (ESA) and a service dog (SD) are NOT the same?

SD: Service Dog: a dog or miniature horse that has been individually trained to perform a TASK that mitigates a person’s disability (Key words: “individually trained”, “task”, “mitigates”, “disability”; Fluffy may know how to play dead, but that doesn’t count as a task to mitigate much of anything.)
ESA: Emotional Support Animal: an animal of ANY species which mitigates the psychological component of a disability and is considered a reasonable accommodation (Key words: “reasonable”, “mitigates”, “psychological." A tiger is probably not a reasonable accommodation. Only a licensed mental health professional can help determine if your hedgehog provides appropriate support for your psychological well-being.)

The species and presence of training distinguish an SD from an ESA.
SDiT: Service Dog in Training: These are not specifically named in federal law but they are often covered as reasonable accommodations under housing law. California law also allows access to places of public accommodation with SDiTs.

Did you know the laws around service dogs don’t guarantee the *dog* any special rights or treatment?

The rights belong to the person with the disability, not the dog. A service dog functions much like a wheelchair or ventilator; it is a necessary component for managing a disability. “How come *their* dog gets to go into the grocery store and mine doesn’t?” is not a reasonable question. The dog isn’t getting to do anything (he’d probably rather be at home shredding cardboard). Instead, the dog is fulfilling a medical function. I can take Cricket into businesses under the heading of training, using the California state law, but I do not have equal access under federal law because he is not my service dog and does not help me function in society.

Public access - equal access to businesses and government programs, including education, is given to handlers of service dogs and does NOT require any letter or certification. Gatekeepers can only ask if it’s a service dog and what task it performs. Nope, the dog doesn’t need a diploma, yellow or blue vest, hard hat, badge, or nametag. Velociraptor hats are optional, as well.

Exceptions include sterile areas, direct threat to health and safety, dog isn’t housebroken, dog is not under control. For example, Caroline may take Cricket wherever she goes...within reason. While he often goes to medical appointments, if she is having a surgery, Cricket, like the rest of the family, has to wait in the lounge; he doesn’t get to mask and gown up. Caroline takes Cricket to the grocery store. However, if he were to start doing parkour on the canned goods displays, she could be asked to take him out.

Did you know your veterinarian can’t “certify” your dog, cat, hamster, or wallaby as a service or support animal?

That’s a trick question. Of course you do, because you just read this article.

While the veterinarian has no role in determining the “legitimacy” of a service or support animal, they can play a part in helping the human/animal pair function to maximum capacity. Your veterinarian can help identify and manage health issues, such as respiratory or joint problems, that might limit your animal’s physical capabilities. (A bulldog or pug probably wouldn’t be a good service companion for someone who likes to spend a lot of time outdoors in Death Valley). Dogs that help their owners directly with mobility assistance are at risk for orthopedic problems over time as the owner repeatedly pulls or presses on a harness, and a veterinarian can help determine whether a particular dog is suited for such work and identify problems early on. The veterinarian can also help identify and intervene early with behavioral issues such as anxiety or aggression. The last thing one needs in a service dog is a tendency to scale the owner’s head in moments of fear or randomly attack passers-by.

As for Cricket, having done his duty shredding the confidential office cardboard for me, he is curled back up, snoring and waiting to go back to his real job, fetching and carrying for Caroline.


Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
April 25, 2017

Dear Chaobella, I am sorry this post came across as flippant to you.  I do want to assure you that I take the topic itself quite seriously -- otherwise I would not have written the piece.  Also, the article was written with the full editorial input and enthusiastic consent of a working service dog partner, the woman pictured and mentioned in the article.  In fact, while much of the humorous phrasing is mine, some of it is hers.  Neither of us takes lightly the role of service dogs to their partners and to society.  However, I do strongly feel that even serious subjects can be handled with a touch of humor.  At VetzInsight we believe so strongly that humor helps render information more palatable (the "spoonful of sugar") that it is part of our mission statement. "VetzInsight seeks to educate pet owners in a lighthearted, sometimes poignant manner by taking a sideways look at companion animal issues. Rather than explain what occurs in a disease process and how to treat it - which is what our sister site Veterinary Partner does - our goal is not only to inform on larger issues but to tap into the numerous emotions at play within the human-animal bond. We're here to learn and have fun."

April 23, 2017

While this article was hopefully trying to be humorous I didn't find it so. As someone who has worked a lot with people who have service animals (disabled military) I found this article off-putting. One can write an article stating what protections service animals have or don't have without seemingly making light of them. They serve a vital role in helping some people live their lives. In other cases they actually keep their person alive. That is serious, not amusing.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.