Few things in life have hard and fast rules and training, working and loving Service Dogs is no exception. However, there are some cardinal rules that should be followed by all teams for the benefit of the entire Service Dog community. We call these the “Service Dog Commandments.”
Some of the Service Dog Commandments are common courtesy, a couple are just good habits and others are absolute necessity. They may not work for every single team in every single situation, but the instances they don’t are few and far between.
1.) Thou Shalt Set a Stellar Example At All Times
When your Service Dog accompanies you everywhere, you spend every waking minute with her and your lives are deeply intertwined, it’s easy to forget that you and your partner may be the first Service Dog team someone ever meets. Be certain to never leave any person, business or establishment with a less-than-positive impression of Service Dogs. Remember that there are two parts to a Service Dog team – you and your canine buddy – and both of you needs to represent the Service Dog community well. Check out this list of things Service Dogs in public should and should not do for a few pointers on setting a good example.
2.) Thou Shalt Abide By “Safety First”
The world can be a big, scary, unpredictable place and that’s even before you’ve set foot out of your front door. Your Service Dog is your partner, your friend, your lifeline, your helper and your family member. She’s capable of a lot of things and is a miracle worker on 4 paws, but it’s up to you to ensure she is safe at all times. First and foremost, take care of your partner’s health needs on a routine basis. Use preventative medicine as needed for your area (heartworm prevention, disease prevention, etc.), keep your partner well groomed (long nails are a hazard on the slick surfaces many Service Dogs encounter regularly) and keep your partner’s weight in check. Carrying extra weight shortens your partner’s life, puts extra strain on their joints and back, decreases working endurance and is especially dangerous for brace/mobility support dogs.
Second, practice defensive public access. Just like defensive driving, defensive public access requires you to be aware of your environment and spot potentially hazardous or awkward situations before they occur. Don’t take your partner into areas in which she could be hurt and help her avoid situations that seem routine, but that could turn bad quickly. For example, if your Service Dog works on your right side and you’re walking along a busy road with a narrow shoulder, move her to your left until you’re in a safer area. You can’t always control your environment, but you can control your Service Dog. Ensure your partner is able to easily transition to an alternate position if need be.
Third, follow basic canine safety requirements. If it’s too hot or too cold for you to be comfortable outside, it’s likely too hot or cold for your partner. Secure your partner when traveling in a vehicle. Avoid dangerous plants, substances and toxins.
3.) Thou Shalt Identify Your Service Dog
The 3rd Service Dog Commandment goes paw-in-hand with the “Safety First” commandment. Identifying your partner is a huge part of keeping her safe. Have your Service Dog microchipped and keep the registration information up to date at all times. If you travel, add a local emergency contact to the registry each time you’re on a trip. Get and use an ID tag of some kind. Many people put “Service Dog,” their dog’s name and their phone number on the tag, but if you’re concerned about personal information being accessible to just anyone, get a tag that lets people know your Service Dog is microchipped and should be taken to a local vet if found.
Dogs without tags are often taken to animal shelters or mistaken as strays. A visible tag may be your partner’s only connection to you, so make certain your Service Dog can always find her way home if she becomes lost for some reason. Don’t think, “My partner would NEVER be lost,” because the very things we think could never often tend to happen at the worst times. Perhaps you were separated from your partner during a medical emergency, or a natural disaster occurred. Plan for the worst, but hope for the best.
4.) Thou Shalt Follow the Service Dog Laws
Service Dog laws in the United States are regulated on federal, state, county and city levels. Here’s a handy guide to federal Service Dog law that’s written in plain English, and here’s a great place to look up state Service Dog laws. Look up your county or city Service Dog laws via your local government’s website or request to see local ordinances at your library. It is your responsibility to know, follow and be able to explain the laws in your area.
Even if you think a particular requirement is stupid or without value, abide by it anyways. Refer back to the 1st Commandment: Thou Shalt Set a Stellar Example At All Times. By utilizing a Service Dog, you’re front and center in the public’s eye and whether or not you agree with current Service Dog law, you should avoid giving members of the public or local justice system any reason to say or believe something negative about the Service Dog community. Additionally, should it ever become necessary for you to pursue legal action on the behalf of you or your Service Dog, you must be able to demonstrate you have followed federal, state and local Service Dog law.
Finally, do not ever misrepresent a dog as a Service Dog or utilize a dog as a Service Dog who has no right to be called by that highly prestigious title. The hidden complications of fake Service Dogs are extensive and crippling to the Service Dog community.
5.) Thou Shalt Be Presentable At All Times
While many of the Service Dog Commandments are for you, the trainer, owner or handler, this one is moreso for your canine buddy. Keep your partner presentable at all times, particularly in public. She doesn’t need to look like she just waltzed out of a puppy spa or salon, but she should be well-groomed and odor free. Her coat needs to be free from mats, not dirty or exceptionally dusty, and her eyes and ears should be visibly clean. Before going out on a public access outing, your partner may need a quick brushing or wipe down with dog-safe bath wipes if she looks a bit rumpled. If your partner’s breed requires regular and professional grooming, make sure she gets it.
Her gear needs to be clean and well-maintained and she should not have anything physical going on that would prevent her from safely doing her work and focusing on her job. For example, she shouldn’t be sick, recovering from any medical procedures or limping. Keeping your partner presentable and clean is not only common courtesy, but required by law in many areas.
6.) Thou Shalt Provide Physical and/or Mental Stimulation
Service Dogs are not robots. At the end of the day, they are still dogs and living creatures with specific needs. Part of owning a dog is ensuring they get proper exercise. Exercise (whether physical or mental) provides your partner with an outlet for excess energy, allows her to focus on her job when working and helps her relax when she’s off-duty. Without exercise, even the best-trained dog’s skills can deteriorate rapidly and problem behaviors start cropping up. Check out this excellent guide to exercising for some ideas on what to do, exercise safety and benefits of playing.
Physical exercise can consist of walks, running, biking, swimming, playing fetch, participating in agility, weight pull or another canine sport or anything that gets your Service Dog’s heart rate up and lets her really use her body and muscles. Mental exercise can involve training, puzzle toys like Kongs or Tuxes, or canine brain games.
7.) Thou Shalt Maintain and Continue Thy Dog’s Training
Your Service Dog is a working dog. Her job is skill-based, and like any skill, if not utilized, it fades. Federal law requires your partner to have specific, trained tasks to help mitigate your disability. It is your responsibility to maintain your dog’s training to a high standard. You and your partner should be continually learning and adapting throughout her working life; the training is never over. There’s always something new to learn or a skill to polish. Don’t ever stop learning, and don’t let your partner get sloppy on basic or advanced behaviors.
The same can also apply to you, the trainer, owner or handler. Don’t ever think you “know it all,” because there’s always something else to discover an approach you haven’t seen. Everyone you encounter knows something you don’t, and you learn something from everyone, even if it’s what not to do. Read books, watch videos, attend workshops or fellowships and always work to better yourself as a handler. The better you are, the better your dog can be.
8.) Thou Shalt Log Thy Learning
If you’re not logging your Service Dog’s training, learning and socialization encounters, you should be. There’s no way around it; training logs are vital for a Service Dog team in today’s world. Check out this handy guide to establishing a Service Dog training log system that works for you and your partner.
9.) Thou Shalt Educate
Whether you want to be or not, when you set foot outside of your house with your Service Dog, you become a Service Dog community ambassador. You will likely find yourself in the position of needing to educate people and businesses who know nothing about Service Dogs and you may encounter tense and/or hostile situations while out and about. Even when it’s difficult or stressful, you need to do your best to educate the public. Whether it’s handling an access challenge or you’re just answering questions about your Service Dog, interaction is inevitable. Have a plan in place to handle common situations and understand that you’re not just educating for your benefit, but for the benefit of every Service Dog team who will follow behind you.
10.) Thou Shalt Do Thy Best In All Things
Some days are bad days. Some days you have a bad day, and sometimes your partner has a bad day. Whatever the case may be or the situation at hand, commit to always doing your best. Even on your worst days, remember that your track record for survival to this point is 100%, and that’s a pretty good record. If things don’t go as planned, your dog decides she doesn’t know her name today, you’re in a ton of pain, you encountered an awful access challenge or you just aren’t capable of getting out of bed, do the best you can for and by your partner, and know that tomorrow is a new day. No matter what, your Service Dog loves you unconditionally and as long as you put your best effort forward, you can rest easy in the knowledge you have succeeded for the day and there was nothing you could have done better.
Do you have a “rule” or guideline you think should be added to the 10 Service Dog Commandments? Have any questions, comments, concerns, thoughts or ideas concerning the 10 Service Dog Commandments? Chime in with a comment and let us know!