Reframing Our Relationship With Service Dogs
Service dogs can provide monumental benefits for people living with disabilities. Currently, the demand for service dogs has greatly surpassed the availability of trained dogs. To fill this gap, people are looking for service dogs from a growing number of sources. While many organizations and trainers claiming to provide service dogs are credible, there is a need for the process to be more standardized to protect the animals and people involved in this relationship. Additionally, there’s plenty of research and media coverage that highlights the positive effects of service dogs on humans but little can be found about the impacts on the animals themselves. This article examines how we view service dogs as a society and how we might build a more standardized, reciprocal relationship based on mutual respect.
The author begins by discussing some of the connections between disability and animal rights. Prominent disability scholars such as Sanaura Taylor have argued that there is a deep connection between how people living with disabilities and animals are treated by society. For example, both groups have historically been marginalized and treated as “lesser than” able-bodied humans, which has served to uphold ableist, speciesist norms. However, both people living with disabilities and animals have intrinsic value, and recognizing this is an important step toward creating a more equitable society.
As service dogs become more prevalent, a growing number of scholars are questioning the ethics of training dogs to work with humans. Because dogs are extremely social animals, they tend to react strongly to the emotions of their human service partners. Similar to nurses and social workers who address stressful situations, there’s a concern that they may be negatively impacted by living in a stressful environment for extended periods. Although more research on service dog emotions is needed, existing research has shown that dogs live happier, healthier lives when they live with humans. When there’s a strong bond between a human and a dog, both parties experience psychological and emotional benefits. Additionally, the activities that service dogs often perform provide the mental enrichment they thrive on. With this in mind, the author argues for reframing society’s relationship with service dogs rather than eliminating them.
While advocating for a reframing of how society views service dogs, the article explores a relationship based on “dyadic-belonging.” This term stems from the idea that there needs to be mutual respect between a service dog and their human partner. Their relationship is one based in reciprocity, and the rights of both parties need to be preserved. Because the human and the service dog are considered partners, each member of the relationship has intrinsic value that must be considered. Society shouldn’t view the person with disabilities as entirely dependent on the service dog. Similarly, the service dog should be seen as more than just a tool that can provide value to a human.
In North America, the number of “fake” service dogs has risen substantially over the past few years. This phenomenon includes people giving companion animals fake service vests and organizations providing “service dogs” that are not properly trained. Not only is this dangerous for people with disabilities relying on dogs, but it also undercuts the public’s trust in the system. When the legitimacy of a service dog is questioned, people with disabilities are often forced to defend why they require a service dog, which infringes upon their rights and makes them feel even further excluded from society. Similarly, if we define the dog only by the value they provide, humans are expected to share why they “need” the service dog. This not only minimizes the intrinsic value of the dog, but it also places humans in a position of being seen as “dependent” on service dogs and devalues the human-animal relationship.
With “fake” service dogs being a significant concern, the lack of training standardization opens the door to the exploitation of both dogs and humans. Disingenuous organizations or unethical trainers may financially take advantage of people looking for service dogs. Similarly, dogs may be trained using suboptimal methods or viewed as disposable tools if they are no longer “needed.” The author recommends national policies, programs, and training for all parties involved.
With the “dyadic-belonging” model in mind, service dog training should focus on animal welfare, disability rights, partnership matching, and ethical dog training techniques. This would ensure service dogs are being trained using established methods and are being deliberately matched with the right human companions. Additionally, there needs to be training that focuses on animal welfare and rights for people who are being paired with a service dog. This would ensure human companions are adequately prepared to meet the unique needs of their service dog. Retirement can be an especially turbulent period for service dogs, as they are typically separated from their human partner. As a result, national programs designed to protect service dogs who are no longer “needed” or who are deemed unfit for their role are also important.
There is little doubt that service dogs greatly improve the lives of the people they live with. Society must now take the next step to ensure service dogs are protected and viewed as more than just the utility they provide for humans. Just as service dogs help humans meet their needs, we owe them the same courtesy. With a foundation in mutual respect and reciprocity, we can pave the way for a more equal relationship between people and the animals who enhance and enrich our lives.