How to hang with a service animal


Courtesy of Gabrielle Dunbar

Living Life: Gabrielle and her service dog Kiya enjoy a day out. Kiya has been trained for two years to aid Gabi in her day-to-day life lived with chronic & mental illnesses.

Gabrielle Dunbar, found on YouTube and Instagram as @chronically_living_life, is a forensic investigation major here at Washburn who has one big thing that makes her stand out in a crowd; her medical and psychiatric alert and response service dog, Kiya. Kiya helps her through her chronic and mental illnesses by performing tasks that alleviate the effects that Dunbar’s disabilities have on her everyday life.
Service dogs are the most common of service animals, as the only other legal variation is miniature horses. Commonly, they wear vests that declare them service dogs, but are not actually required to.
So, what makes a dog a service dog? According to Dunbar, for the dog to be qualified they must have two years of training and basic obedience, as well as the advanced task training. There are special training programs, like the one Terry Ralston, a senior majoring in mass media, used for his PTSD & Mobility Aid service dog, Ivan.
“[Ivan] was trained by an organization called Warriors Best Friend… they’re a nonprofit organization that trains service animals for veterans, specific to what they need,” said Ralston.
A service dog can only be considered a service dog when it is trained to perform tasks directly related to a disabled person’s disability. That is to say, a well trained and obedient dog handled by someone without a disability is not a service dog, even if they have advanced training.
“The only way you get a service animal is by having a debilitating disability,” said Dunbar.
Service dogs can be any breed of dog, and under federal law can be trained by the owner themselves, but they cannot have a bite history, or have an aggressive temperament. The dog must be kept under control in public spaces, which often looks like being kept on a leash and attentive to their person, but there are several important tasks a service dog might be off leash to complete.
For example, Ralston explained one of the tasks his soon-to-be new service dog, Tank, will learn is, ‘find,’ where Tank will leave Ralston’s side to find someone to assist Ralston.
In the case that you may encounter a service dog that is uncontrolled -barking repeatedly, snapping, or acting aggressively- it is advisable that you find a manager if you are in an establishment in order to report the behavior, or remove yourself from the situation. If a service dog should attack -bite, lunge, tackle, etc.- you, someone nearby or another animal, then you should call the police, or, depending on the threat level, find the manager of the establishment. Also, keep in mind that in these situations a powerful tool can be as easy as taking a video recording of the interaction.
If a service dog barks once or twice, this is often not a sign of misbehavior, but rather the dog alerting as a task. If you encounter a service dog off leash and wandering around with no handler in sight, you should at least try to follow the dog.
“Typically what that means is that the handler is unconscious, and the dog is trained to go find help,” said Dunbar.
While a service dog is on duty, you should always be mindful of your actions to be sure they are not distracting the dog from doing their job. Distracting can be as small as making eye contact, though it is more often along the lines of petting the dog, talking to the dog, calling them, making kissy noises, etc.
During interaction with the handler, especially if they are a stranger, all of the communication should go to them, not the dog. This is mostly because distracting the dog could end up with the handler severely injured if they miss an alert, but also because distracting a service dog is a federal crime. According to Kansas law S. A. 39-1103, the harassment of/interference with service dogs can result in a penalty of no less than 30 days to one year’s imprisonment and to be fined no less than $500 nor more than 5,000.
Although, it should be known that the individual handling the dog has boundaries as well, and common courtesy suggests that you should refrain from coming up and telling dead dog stories or any kind of, ‘you don’t look disabled’ comments, something both Dunbar and Ralston have experienced as people with invisible disabilities.
If this person is a stranger, or an acquaintance at best, they owe you nothing, and often questions relating to their service dog relate to their medical history.
“If somebody is in a wheelchair, would you go ask somebody why they’re in a wheelchair?” said Dunbar.
Typically, you would not go up to someone and touch their inanimate medical equipment, or ask them about it, and service dogs deserve the same respect for their work.
If you have any further questions, or interests, a wonderful resource would be the ADA website where they have a service animal FAQ page.