It’s the end of the day, and you’re exhausted. You stumble in the door, and your dog – eagerly awaiting your arrival – immediately runs to you and covers you with the sweetest wet kisses.
In that moment, you aren’t worried about the stress of work or the dishes in the sink, and instead just feel the love and support from your loyal companion.
But for some of us with disabilities, these beautiful animals provide far more than wet kisses and loving companionship.
For some of us, they are a complete necessity to our physical security, health, and wellbeing.
For example, on top of the daily stress of work and dishes, I also have the additional worries that come along with my medical condition: What happens if I pass out in public or if I am too weak to get a water from the kitchen?
Because I’m not able to pay for a caregiver to be there 24/7, working with service animals has given me around-the-clock confidence that I’m still able to be independent, supported, and safe.
Service animals, similar to our own individual pets, provide disabled people with therapeutic emotional support.
Additionally, they are trained to specifically cater to their owners and to assist them with their unique disabilities. Service animals can support disabled individuals in their daily routines and respond in emergency situations.
If I pass out in public, my service dog can be trained to get help, or even to put me back in my wheelchair. If I’m too weak to get up, my service dog can fetch a water bottle from the fridge.
Service dogs are often the catalyst of independent decision making for us disabled folk.
In the US, service animals – most commonly dogs – are protected by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yet service dogs and their owners still are commonly undervalued, misunderstood, and discriminated against in public spaces.
When we disregard the necessity and rights of service dogs, we are perpetuating the marginalization of their disabled owners.
It’s our job as intersectional feminists to work towards the better understanding and appreciation of service animals, so that people with all different disabilities may find increased independence and quality of life.
Here are three things feminists should know about service dogs and their owners.
1. Service Dogs Serve Disabled People
Service or assistant dogs, by definition, are trained to serve their owner’s specific disability. These dogs are always connecting and learning from their owners to anticipate their needs.
Many of us might have animals that we love and cherish. They are probably considered a part of our family and are instrumental to our well-being.
Service dogs, similar to pets, take on these roles that can be life-changing for their owners. Further, they are trained to ensure the safety and increase the independence and quality of life for their owners.
With this service dog partnership, doors are quite literally being opened for wheelchair users, for example.
For blind or visually impaired people, their guide dogs may assist them in navigating obstacles.
For d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, their hearing dogs are trained to respond to the sounds around them.
For people with other disabilities, service dogs can be trained to provide a plethora of services.
Service dogs can routinely remind their owners to take a specific medication or respond to seizures that can happen anywhere and anytime.
Service dogs have saved their owner’s life by responding to unexpected medical emergencies and reducing panic for all involved.
While doctors may prescribe an emotional support or companion animal that is helpful to their owners, these dogs do not have the same rights in public as trained service animals do.
Because service dogs are not pets and are specifically trained to serve their owner’s disability, we need to know what these rights are and how to best respond to them in public.
People with disabilities who use service dogs deserve equal access to social spaces with as much ease, respect, and safety as everyone else.
2. Responding Respectfully Matters
I want to pet every cute dog I see (with the owner’s permission, of course)! I love talking to animal lovers because it’s easy to make conversation. And I can’t help but to use my high pitched baby-animal voice at the first sight of fuzzy thing!
Even though my love of animals prompts me to respond affectionately, I have to remember that service dogs are never to be treated as someone’s pet.
Distracting the service dog with petting, offering treats, or any other ways we might try to get a dog’s attention can lead to detrimental consequences.
The dogs are trained to work. They respond to their owner’s commands and can often anticipate their owner’s needs.
If we interfere in anyway, we are erasing the disability and taking away the owner’s control of the situation and putting both the owner and the dog at risk.
Asking about someone’s service dog might seem like a friendly way to make conversation, but this attention is not beneficial to the owner or the dog.
Just as you shouldn’t acknowledge someone’s wheelchair before their humanity, you shouldn’t ask about or bring attention to the service dog.
Non-disabled privilege often gets in the way of us connecting with others on a personal level. We immediately notice the differences between us and want to do something “nice” to compensate for them.
In reality, the best way to be an ally is respect the owner’s and the service dog’s boundaries and self-agency.
It’s easy to spot a service dog versus a pet when they’re wearing a work vest.
Many organizations that train service dogs choose to train their dogs in these vests to establish clear boundaries for the dog and their owner.
When the dog is working, they wear the vest. And when the vest comes off in private, the dog might be allowed to play or rest without being as attentive to their owner.
Some vests will be clearly marked as a “working service dog” with reminder statements like “do not pet.”
By law, service dogs are not required to wear a vest, but must be leashed at all times unless the leash prohibits the dog from a particular service or assistance.
That is all that is required of the service dog to have the same rights to be in a public space, including restaurants or taxis, as their owner under the ADA in the US.
The Fair Housing Act permits disabled people and their service animals to live in places that do not allow pets – without any extra fees or consequences.
The Air Carrier Act Access Act also allows for assistant animals to ride with their owner in the cabin of an airplane, but must usually prove verification of necessity beforehand.
These legislations came after many years of disability activism, and there are still many disabled feminists working to create policy changes to better support people with disabilities.
In other public spaces, it is illegal ask the owner or the service animal to leave just because there is a “no pets” policy.
If you are a business owner or responsible for a public space, you are permitted to ask if the dog is a service dog. However, the owner does not have to provide documentation or an explanation to “prove it.”
Business owner or not, it’s never ever okay to ask why someone has a service dog.
These confrontations are ableist, invasive, and discriminatory.
While training a vested service dog with my invisible disability, I was constantly questioned why I (while passing as non-disabled) needed a service dog!
It was awful being confronted by so many strangers asking “what was wrong” with me multiple times a day, often disrupting the training process or whatever personal tasks I was trying to accomplish.
Regardless if someone has an invisible disability or is a non-disabled trainer, the service dog still has the same rights, as the human they are with, under the ADA and deserves the same respect in public.
The ADA also protects trained miniature horses as service animals, with similar conditions to dogs such as being housebroken and is under the owner’s control.
The laws protect blatant discrimination against disabled people and their service animals in these instances, but we must do our part to continue to do our feminist work intersectionality to continue providing equitable access and opportunity.
3. Service Animals Are Expensive
While service dogs can be very beneficial to their owners, living with a disability and having a service dog includes many additional challenges besides facing discrimination in public.
Most service dog training organizations expect their disabled applicants to fundraise. Some ask for “at least $15,000” to meet the high costs of training a service dog.
Depending on the organization, owners might be required to cover additional costs of food or any medical problems the dog might have.
This reality can be devastating.
For example, many times individuals cannot afford veterinary bills and are forced to put down their service dog due to costs. Not only do the individuals lose their original investment in training this dog, but they are also losing their sense of security, independence, and partnership with their service dog.
There are some organizations that are able to provide service animals to their disabled applicants at no cost and will continue ownership of the dog to cover any unforeseen medical expenses throughout its life.
The process for any organization to train and match a person with their service dog varies from a few weeks to a few months, and a person might not find their right fit for a service dog the first time.
Other organizations can help a disabled pet owner train their dog to become a service dog.
As feminists, we must continue to support disabled people to make the best choice for themselves – regardless of socioeconomic status.
We can find ways to support by volunteering on-site at service dog training facilities, donating to grass roots fundraising efforts, or even fostering or volunteering to help train service dogs.
While service dogs are ultimately trained to benefit their disabled owner, even non-disabled feminists who work to understand the importance of service dogs can help to deconstruct some of the mainstream perceptions about disability and what we consider “normal.”
While those with disabilities face many additional challenges due, and service dogs can help alleviate some of these issues.
As feminists, we must respect and protect service dog rights so that we can support our disabled friends!
Sara Whitestone is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. As a disabled feminist, Sara proudly advocates for accessibility issues and other students with disabilities at UC. She is founder and President of Sara Spins, a foundation dedicated to raising funds and awareness for students with disabilities. Sara’s an avid foodie and amateur yogi with goals of healing her chronic illness holistically. When she’s not making a complete mess of her kitchen or trying to keep up with her personal health blog, she enjoys taking naps on campus, attempting to be punny on Twitter and searching for new street art downtown.