Service dog

Q. How can I explain a service dog's job to my children? I want them to understand that these dogs are not there to play with them but to help their owners.

A. I’m so glad to have the chance to address this important issue. There’s a lot of confusion over the definition of a service dog, what they do, and what rights the people who use them have under law. And that’s before you get to the matter of how people should treat them in public.

In other words, it's often not just children who need to learn about the crucial work these animals do.

What Is a Service Dog?

Under federal law, as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is one who is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. With a limited exception for miniature horses, only dogs are protected as service animals under the ADA, a recent refinement to the law. Starting with canines trained to assist the vision-impaired after World War I, the use of dogs to assist people with disabilities has expanded to include work providing aid to hearing-impaired people and those who use wheelchairs, among others.

To qualify as service dogs, the animals must be trained to actually do tasks. This sets them apart from dogs who provide comfort or emotional support just by being, well, dogs. The distinction is important when it comes to access to places where animals typically are not allowed, such as businesses where food is sold or served, or public transportation.

Interacting With a Service Dog

Service dogs need to be respected for the work they do, and left alone to do it. It is not appropriate to interact with a dog who’s working with a person who has a disability; your children need to understand that they should not pet or play with a service dog unless they have the owner's permission first. You should also talk with your children about the best way to ask questions about the dog's work and the ower's disability, in order to be sure that they don't hurt anyone's feelings.

Introducing your kids to a service dog is an excellent way to teach your children about all the ways dogs work with and for people. I’d suggest preparing them by viewing a couple of episodes of the National Geographic series “Dogs With Jobs” and then discussing the many roles dogs play in our lives.

Thank you for bringing up this important subject! I grew up with the working dogs on our family farm, and I still love to see dogs working with people. My daughter, Vetstreet behavior expert Mikkel Becker, works with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation to spot shelter dogs who can do this important work. Talk about a win-win!