The True Meaning of The Service Dog Vest

By: Matthew Johnson of Waggz & Whiskerz

The thing about service dogs: you probably don’t have one.

Want to drive me nuts? Ask me, “Where can I get one of those cool vests so I can take my dog everywhere?” This question is almost always asked by someone without a disability and followed with the explanation that “I just don’t like being alone in public” or “I want to take my dog with me into the store” or “He’s with me all the time anyway…everyone loves him.” Since going out in public with my service dog Benji, this is what I have encountered, and I’m sure you will all find it very interesting.(Keep in mind Benji is still in training mode and has only been in public 8 times).

Many of us enjoy and are comforted by our dog’s constant company. With their loyalty and happiness to participate in whatever it is we are doing, dogs provide us with fun and most importantly emotional support. The idea that the natural tendencies of owning a pet dog somehow entitles the pet owners to call their dog a “service dog” is both naïve and inappropriate.

The “vest-seekers” never want to know how to actually train a real service dog. On occasion, they might inquire about “certification,” but their ideas quickly fade once realizing the complexity of the task. “Just give me the vest”.

I’ve seen the service dog vest subjected to a full range of abuse: from the housewife who wants to keep a poodle in her purse while shopping and so on, but the best was seeing a drunk guy outside shoppers drug mart with an unleashed German Shepherd Mix, that was clearly out of control and kept hiking his leg to pee on everything and growling at passersby. This homemade “service dog” vest had been cut from an old shirt, tape and magic marker. This single event altered my entire perception of how people view the value of owning a service dog and the meaning that is suppose to be behind the vest.

Service dogs perform actual, specific tasks for people with disabilities: signal dogs for the deaf such as Benji, guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for those in wheelchairs, alert dogs for insulin-dependent type 1 diabetics, seizure response dogs, assistance dogs for persons with certain psychiatric disabilities, and medical alert dogs. These are not pets – they are highly trained, working partners that have been liberating people with disabilities since the 1800’s. (As you can tell I do my research).

The homemade “vesters,” as I now like to call them, continue to claim bogus disorders while prancing around with their untrained pets as service dogs are no different from those who fake a condition in order to park in handicapped zones.

What I have learned from talking with Doctors at Sunnybrook is that these people who pretend to have a service dog actually are threatening to cancel the access to public places that legitimate service dog organizations have fought so hard to earn.

Most real service dogs such as Benji have been carefully selected, shown and taught by professionals for their suitable temperament, health and aptitude for their necessary work. They have received intensive training, often completing a 1-year training program before being assigned to their full time position. The reason they will wear a service dog vest while in training is so that they become accustom to wearing it and acting natural in public places with out losing focus during tasks. It is a painstakingly sophisticated process and it’s unconscionable to think one can simply slap a T-shirt on the family dog and stride through any public place.

This disrespect could eventually cost me my rights as a citizen and lower my independence level as well as my freedom and confidence to come and go as I please with my service dog Benji. These people who mock the service dog program also devalues the work of true service dogs like Benji.

Can you train your own service dog? Yes. Maybe. I respect anyone with a genuine need for a service dog that seeks to legitimately elevate his or her dog’s status from pet to service animal. This being said, I still feel that even home trained service dogs should be given the same testing as professionally trained service dogs, before dawning the vest.

Service Dogs must have a solid temperament, impeccable manners and be proficient in basic obedience. By proficient I mean do whatever you tell them to without hesitation and from more than a 10-foot distance. They must receive a minimum of 120 hours of schooling with 30 hours dedicated to working in public places under the supervision of a program’s qualified trainer and perform at least three identifiable physical tasks for the benefit of the disabled partner.(Benji performs 6 a day as part of his routine)

I’m not the only one plagued by the vest-seeking crowd. Other People with service dogs are regularly tormented with “You’re so lucky, I wish I could take my dog everywhere,” “Can I pet your dog?” and of course the dreaded, “where do I get one of those vests?”

What’s behind this casual and intrusive attitude toward service dogs? Thirty years ago, Guide Dogs were known as the only public service dogs. People instinctively knew it might be rude or even harmful to distract a blind person with questions about his or her dog and back then, service dog breeds were impressive, formidable-looking German shepherds and Labradors whose sheer size often commanded respect.

Graduate Vest

Training Vest

Those relying on service dogs for their freedom often find themselves forced to run the mill with curious strangers and kids who just don’t understand what being disabled is truly like. Lately every time I leave the house. (As a side note many people with disabilities including myself find constant outings exhausting) I have noticed that the sight of a working service dog impresses people, my suggestion to those who are impressed, offer us a smile and keep moving. The more that people ask about the vest and not the disability the more withdrawn myself others with disabilities tend to become. People should just be thankful that they have the luxury of enjoying a dog as a delightful companion. They shouldn’t want to own a service dog.

As a disabled person I’d love to see service dogs welcome in more places throughout the community. Once I am well enough to argue these points before a committee of sorts, I plan to get into the political side of things and try to help make a difference and stand up for the rights of those with disabilities and service dogs. I have met hundred of people with disabilities ranging from severe physical disabilities, people in wheel chairs and even people who are in “Mental wheelchairs” I want everyone to know that when facing life struggles and tragedy, the message I want to put out there is: “Don’t focus on what has happened to you but rather what can you do about it”.

All of us have the ability to change rules and regulations as well as people’s lives. This is my focus and Waggz & Whiskerz therapy dog program will do just that.

Benji

I hope everyone got a chance to see me & Woofie, on the Pet Network and I’d like to thank the following for helping spread the word on the importance of Therapy dogs and helping me share these stories and experiences.

A Special Thanks to:
The Pet Network’s Pet Central
Toronto Pet Daily
Dawn Marcus & Fit As Fido
The Etobicoke Humane Society
Pet Directions
Paw Tyme Dog Blog
Ellen DeGeneres & Halo
Modern Dog Magazine
The All About Pet Show
The Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers
& All my clients, friends and family from Waggz & Whiskerz

Stay Tuned for more updates April 1st on the power of therapy dogs.