Dear Sarah, April 2019

I’m a local shop owner and I’ve been seeing lots of dogs around lately with jackets that have ‘Service Dog’ on them, but the people who have them are obviously not blind. What’s the story there? 

Michael P

Hi Michael,

Dogs are being used to assist people in all sorts of ways in this day and age. We are all very familiar with Guide Dogs for the blind or visually impaired (which are usually Labradors or Golden Retrievers), but dogs of all shapes and sizes are being trained to assist people with hearing difficulties, to alert to medical conditions (such as migraines or low blood sugar levels) and to help alleviate mental health symptoms (like anxiety, depression or PTSD). 

There are a number of things to be aware of when you see a dog with a Service Dog or Assistance Dog jacket on. Firstly (and most importantly), don’t pat them – no matter how much you desperately want to! When the jacket is on, they’re working – whether it’s to alert their owner of a health issue or to alleviate their owner’s anxiety. Needless to say, they need to concentrate, and interrupting them while they’re doing their job can have some major consequences.  

Secondly, remember that the dog is assisting their owner with some kind of medical condition – so while it’s totally ok to chat to the person (if they want to chat, of course), asking them ‘Why do you have an assistance dog?’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’ is incredibly personal and actually pretty inappropriate. Not everyone wants to share their personal medical history with a complete stranger. Even well meaning, caring people get caught with this one, so if you want to ask questions, ask about their dog, not about their condition – and if the person wants to tell you more, they will. 

Thirdly, by law, certified Assistance Dogs are allowed in all public places, and refusing entry to someone with an Assistance Dog is illegal under the Disability Discrimination Act, 1992. However, certified Assistance Dogs are required to carry identification as well as wear their vest when working, so if you aren’t sure whether someone’s dog truly is an Assistance Dog, you are well within your rights to ask them to produce some ID. 

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