Service Animals and Social Media (My Lassie Moment)

Christopher Sweet May 26, 2020

In June of 2018, Sarah Aswell, a freelance writer and comedian, posted an article titled If a Service Dog Approaches You without Their Owner, They Need Your Help on the website ScaryMommy. The article was inspired by a Twitter feed purportedly from a woman that was training a service animal to go get help if she had a seizure and fell. While we are well beyond 2018 and I tend to let sleeping dogs lie (pun intended), I felt the need to address a couple points of misinformation, as this post has frequently popped up on my friends’ social media feeds.

Service animals are a very popular topic at the Northeast ADA Center. As a Technical Assistant Specialist for the Center, I respond to many of these inquiries. There are so many misconceptions about service animals and the people that use these remarkable canines. One that stands out from the article is that a vest, special harness, or tags make a dog a service animal. While some handlers choose to identify their dog as a service animal by using these tools, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require service dogs to wear vests or display identification. In fact, fraudulent websites that claim to “officially” register a dog as a service animal will add these identifiers to their costly service fees. This has contributed to people willfully or unknowingly bringing dogs that are not actual service animals, into public places.     

The article speaks of seizure alert animals and the tasks that they may perform for an individual that has a seizure disorder. Among those tasks are, displaying alert behaviors before the seizure occurs, staying close to the owner to prevent injuries, alerting a caretaker or family member, as well as retrieving a phone, medication, or alert device. The Twitter feed alludes to the television show Lassie where the ever-faithful dog alerts others that poor Timmy has fallen in a well. While it may be nice to romanticize what our faithful companions may be capable of, it is perhaps naïve to think that the general public would have enough knowledge of service animals, vested or not, to understand that a stray animal seeking attention is actually alerting them to a possible emergency. The Twitter feed states how the service animal would continue to move from person to person until someone finally understood and would follow the animal and provide help. Service animal training can be a lengthy and costly process. While seeking help could be a training goal, tasks such as remaining with the handler during a crisis and alerting others by barking could be much more effective in assisting the individual versus sending an animal out into the public in hopes that someone might have read a Twitter feed. 

Ultimately, I do appreciate attempts to make people aware of service animals and their vital importance in serving the disability community. As with many topics on social media, unfortunately people assume that much of the misinformation is true. The Northeast ADA Center is part of the ADA National Network and is tasked with providing information on the Americans with Disabilities Act so the public has a better understanding of topics such as service animals. To learn more about service animals and other topics under the ADA call us at 1-800-949-4232 or check out this fact sheet ­­­­­­­.