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What’s the Difference Between a Service Animal and a Pet?

What’s the Difference Between a Service Animal and a Pet?

Service animals are everywhere in society, helping disabled people navigate the world more comfortably and independently. While they might look like ordinary pets, they’re actually completely different animals. Pets and service animals both play an important role in the lives of their “people,” but service animals perform some special tasks and enjoy more legal protections. Read on to learn more about the difference between pets and service animals, why “no pets (except service animals)” signs bug me, and how to interact with a service animal when you meet one in public.

As you might expect from the name, service animals are taught to perform a specific service for their handlers. To qualify as a service animal, a dog or horse (legally, horses are included for Muslims who need service animals and can’t work with dogs) must perform specific tasks for her handler, and these tasks must be things her handler can’t accomplish on her own, or can only do with difficulty. While they don’t legally qualify as service animals, some people use monkeys and even cats as service animals too.

Guide dogs are probably the classic example of a service animal, and you may be familiar with them; they help blind people and those with low vision get around safely. They’re trained to very high standards using a technique known as “intelligent refusal.” Their handlers tell them where they want to go, and they’re entrusted with picking the safest route, and refusing to do something they think might endanger themselves or their owners — for example, a guide dog might anchor her owner at a crosswalk if a car was running a red light, making it unsafe to cross.

Mobility and stability dogs are another example. These dogs tend to be larger, and can be used in lots of different ways. Some stability dogs wear a specially-built harness that their handlers hold on to so they can walk more comfortably. The dog is trained to counterbalance the owner, who may have a neurological or other disability that makes it hard to walk. Other mobility dogs pull wheelchairs, helping handlers who use manual wheelchairs but don’t always have the strength to push them.

Seizure and diabetic alert dogs are trained to sense changes in their handlers that are signs of an oncoming medical crisis, to help the handler get medication, ask for help, or prepare for an adverse medical event. Autism and mental health service dogs can distract their handlers when they engage in self harm, or help refocus them when they’re having trouble concentrating. PTSD service animals do things like checking rooms for their handlers so they feel safe to enter.

Some of the tasks service animals perform might seem like cool pet tricks: they can dial the phone, fetch medication, retrieve objects for their owners, open doors, and the like. However, these are specific service tasks, and service animals are trained to a high degree of exactitude, working closely with their handlers and trainers to determine which tasks are needed, and which signals will be used to ask the animal to perform. The training required is highly complicated, and it can take years to successfully complete, representing a significant time investment.

While pets can be trained to do lots of neat things, and many provide emotional support or friendly faces at home, they aren’t service animals: they don’t perform specific tasks that help their disabled owners function independently. That’s why pets don’t have legal protections under legislation like the ADA, which requires businesses to accommodate service animals. “Emotional support animals,” which have become more popular, aren’t service animals either under the law — they are separate from psychiatric service animals because they don’t perform a specific task.

Here are some useful things to know about service animals: their handlers are not required to carry any kind of certification, and asking for “certification” isn’t legal. Service animals aren’t required to wear livery or markings, although many do for the benefit of members of the public who might be confused about what they are doing. If there’s a question about whether an animal qualifies for treatment under the ADA, an operator of a public entity like a hotel, bus, or grocery store can only ask for examples of the tasks the animal performs, not for specific information about the nature of the handler’s disability or the animal’s training. That said, if a service animal is disruptive, she can be asked to leave — hosting disruptive or aggressive animals goes beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

When you pass a “No pets allowed (except service animals)” sign, consider asking the business to revise their wording. This wording implies that service animals are a kind of pet, which they aren’t — they’re working animals, and when they’re out and about, they’re usually on duty.

What happens when service animals go off-duty? They take off their livery, if they wear it, and if they wear special gear, they take that off too. They get to chill out, play and have fun being themselves — at home (where they live with their handlers), at the dog park, and more. When service animals get too old to work, they go into retirement. Some service animal handlers keep their former coworkers (and friends!) through retirement, while others may rehome them through a service animal organization while they work on training with a new animal, a process which can take months or even years.

So, how should you behave around a service animal? The answer from handlers is simple: Ignore her. Pretend like the service animal isn’t in the room, except for the obvious measure of making sure to avoid her personal space bubble. She’s working, and she doesn’t need to be distracted by people petting her, waving at her, pointing at her, or otherwise drawing attention to her. Before you ask if you can touch a service animal, or ask for more information about her, consider how often her handler probably gets those questions — and how her handler might appreciate being left alone to go about her daily business. Service animals are hardworking animals, but when they’re on duty, they need to stay focused.

It can be hard for animal lovers to hear that, but it’s important that service dog handlers be able to go safely around the world. By respecting their privacy and safety, you can make it easier for them, and you can also send a message to other people that will encourage them to do the same.

If you have kids who ask about a service animal when they see one in public, start by asking them not to point, stare or harass the service animal and/or handler. Next, explain that the handler needs the service animal to help her with some tasks she can’t do on her own; for example, if the handler is blind, you can say that her dog acts as her “eyes,” helping her stay safe while she’s out and about. If you aren’t sure about what a service animal is for in a given case, that’s okay! You can just say that she’s helping out her handler, and that there’s nothing to be scared of or worried about.

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Photo credit: "Yates," George Hawkins.

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11:58PM PST on Jan 11, 2015

Are there any service anteaters?

12:51AM PST on Dec 17, 2014


4:47PM PDT on Jul 18, 2014

My local news recently did a story regarding service dogs. The issue was that people who simply want to take their pet dog with them into a store or restaurant simply have to state to anyone who questions them that the dog is a service dog and then the staff have to take their word for it. This creates distrust and suspicion towards those whose dogs are truly service animals.

Most people's concept of a service dog is the iconic seeing-eye dog leading a blind person. But these days, service dogs help with a wide variety of disabilities, some of which are not so evident. This is what has enabled unscrupulous people to lie about their dog's status is order to take them places they shouldn't. This is why I believe that there should be a system in place along the lines of the handicap license plates and placards that the states issue. True service dogs cost large amounts of money to be trained. Included in that training, these dogs should be certified by an appropriate organization and identifying tags should be issued to make it clear that they are service animals and those tags should be required to be clearly displayed on the dog's leash or cape when in public. These tags could be issued for free, like handicap placards (at least they are free in my state), after filing an application providing proof of the dogs training and use. In addition, it should be a punishable crime to falsely identify a pet dog as a service animal when it is not, just like it is a crime to

6:57AM PDT on Jun 9, 2014


9:40AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

I've never found it hard to 'ignore' a service animal, although I do think that ignore is the wrong word to use. You have to pay attention to what a service animal is doing because they give you an indication of what their handler is doing. A good example of this is when I was at a take-away burger place to get a treat, someone wasn't paying attention and must have had a similar name to the man who had guide dog because this person almost tripped over the dog and thus walked into the handler because of the confusion. It's also important to be aware of people around you who are scared of dogs (including service animals), a guy almost walked into me on the train because he was that scared of the guide dog and because a near by passenger had offered their seat the dog was coming toward him.

6:12AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Shelter dogs can make great service animals.

4:55AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

No difference for the fact that both of them love us unconditionally

8:02PM PDT on Jun 5, 2014


12:32PM PDT on Jun 5, 2014

How sad so many people "USE" the system and claim their everyday pets to be "SERVICE" dog, making it harder and harder for the REAL service dogs.

10:14AM PDT on Jun 5, 2014

It should be legal to provide proof that the animal is a service animal or not. Too many crazies get away with abusing their pets and other people because all they have to say is "yes" and that's it. If I can legally detain someone for being publicly drunk, I should be able to demand certification to make sure this person isn't abusing the project or trying to get away with something they shouldn't.

Also, if an animal is being abused or is fearful of their handlers, there should be NO ramifications for alerting the authorities and getting the dog out of that situation. Lori N, I'm sorry you had to go through that but you did the right thing.

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