The Traditional “Service Dog” Image Is Obsolete!

By April 2, 2018News

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I was taught thirty years ago that Hearing Dogs and Service Dogs must behave and appear consistent with “The Service Dog Image”. For seventy-five years, the Guide Dog programs had paved the way for our public access rights. They had molded a respected public image for their dogs and handlers. Then came the first Hearing Dog and Service Dog training programs, whose dogs also were awarded public access rights by the ADA. We needed to follow the example set by the pioneering programs in these three major fields, in order to preserve and protect our public access rights.

This made sense. Professional behavior from dog and partner leads to respect and easier access. The less the dog behaves like an untrained pet, the easier public access is.

The dogs I trained for myself and for the Hearing Dog Program were usually shelter dogs of various sizes and mixes, with more active and distractable temperaments than Guide Dogs, but they were to keep “four on the floor”, be calm in public, and make no waves as they quietly passed through public life. Since they looked more like pet dogs than the usual Lab Guide or SD, they had to behave even better, to prevent public access challenges. Our tinier Hearing Dogs got no respect at first, but gradually the public became aware that Hearing Dogs and Service Dogs came in many flavors other than Vanilla Lab.

blog_traditionalObsoleteIn addition, many new types of SDs were constantly being discovered by creative partners and trainers. The term “SD” can now include HDs, PTSD SDs, Medical Alert SDs, Autism SDs, Psychiatric SDs, and many others. Their functions often required some alteration to the “Service Dog Image”. I started to see SDs being carried in baby slings, leashed to children, riding on mobility scooters, jumping up on their partners, large dogs sprawled across laps, and many other “violations” of the “Service Dog Image”. Many appeared at first glance to be coddled baby-substitute pets, not SDs.

Gear changed, too. No longer could dogs be identified by either the Guide Dog harness and handle, or a plain SD or HD program vest in consistent colors. Now there were pink vests, rainbow vests, leash sleeves, head halters. Patches, embroidery, duct-tape-cut letters. Program IDs, internet IDs, home-made IDs. Then we have the stubborn few handlers that refuse to use any ID or SD-type gear at all. Let’s not even get into the complication of the Emotional Support Animals and their doctors letters. And lately, dogs with brightly-colored chalked fur!

This all causes lots of discussion and arguments in the SD-training industry. But as we all know, the American public is not easily controlled, and awareness of the ADA rules on SDs has reached critical mass in the public consciousness. Some dogs in public are “fakers” pets, but some are indeed SDs performing vital tasks.

Here are some examples of behaviors that are commonly perceived to be contrary to good public behavior and image:

A dog peeking out from its partners’ shirt in a restaurant, as if begging for scraps?
But where else should a dog that alerts to subtle heart arrhythmias be located? Near as possible to our heart, of course. A dog that alerts to breath odor changes? Near the face, if the dog is not tall enough to detect breath from the ground.

A partner lounging on the floor of a mall while the dog sprawls across her chest…what a terrible public image!

But a dog trained for DPT (Deep Pressure Therapy) may be stopping a panic attack by pressure on their partners chest or solar plexus.

A dog jumping up on a partner who appears unaware of their dog or surroundings?
It could be a Hearing Dog, or a Medical Alert Dog preventing total unconsciousness with a timely alert to take medication, or a Diabetic Alert Dog forcing its partner into awareness of low blood sugar.

Pit Bull-type SDs?

Now the public are sometimes the ones getting panic attacks, but DPT from the dog won’t be the answer!

A Great Dane or other giant-breed SD?

How inconsiderate of a person to choose a huge and scary-looking dog that does not fold up easily into small spaces…but many SDs need to be tall and strong to provide bracing help for partners with stability issues.

Carrying a small dog?

That looks “petsy” to most of us. But being attacked by a loose dog is a real and horrifying issue for all dogs, especially small ones. Surviving a dog attack often leaves an SD with permanent emotional damage, inability to be comfortable doing tasks in public, and an end to their career.

I think most of us trainers have given up on the possibility of controlling this colorful and wonderful explosion of canine potential. No longer is the question “what can a Service Dog do?”, but, “What can a Service Dog NOT do?”

Our public image of SD behavior needs to change to keep up with today’s reality. With no United States ADA certification IDs or standards for dogs (or trainers), our only control over the SD explosion is the part of the ADA that allows dogs public to be asked to leave public places if they seem to be “out of control or not housebroken”. And perhaps that is the most sensible route. Well-behaved dogs should have public access; others should not. And, at this time, I don’t see that we have any alternative.


Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.

Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.