Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I've seen a lot of dogs recently in grocery stores and restaurants wearing those yellow service dog vests, but some of them can't obey even simple commands like "sit" and "stay." They seem to really be pets. What do trained service dogs do? Whom do they help?

Dear Reader: It's a shame when dog owners misrepresent their pets as service animals. No doubt some are legitimate "emotional support" animals, necessary companions for their owners to be able to spend time in public spaces. But federal law states that a service dog is one that has been specially trained to physically assist a person with a disability, including -- and we're quoting the law here -- "a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability."

It is on that basis that these devoted animals are granted access to venues and areas not open to other pets. With their rigorous training and specialized skills, service dogs open up the world for their handlers, and keep them safe within it.

Service dogs perform hundreds of tasks for more than a dozen types of disabilities. We're all familiar with guide dogs, which help people with impaired vision. They lead their handlers around obstacles like a park bench, a low-hanging awning or a hole in the ground. They warn them of changes in elevation, like a curb or the edge of a subway platform. They can follow a designated person, like a waiter in a restaurant, or find their handler an empty seat in a public space. And though their handlers are the decision-makers in the partnership, guide dogs have been taught "intelligent disobedience." When given a command to walk forward, if danger is present, like a sudden drop-off or oncoming traffic, they will refuse.

For people with impaired hearing, specially trained dogs become their ears. With a touch of their nose or a gentle paw, they can signal a ringing telephone, a crying baby, a smoke alarm, an alarm clock, a family member calling the handler's name, computer beeps, cellphone alerts and a person's arrival.

People with physical disabilities or missing limbs rely on their service dogs to help with mobility. These dogs can pull a lightweight wheelchair, offer assistance by bracing their handlers as they get up or down, and help their handlers rise if they should fall down. They can open doors, turn light switches on or off, and pick up objects as small as a dime.

Seizure dogs, which are trained to recognize their handlers' physical symptoms, can summon help by calling 911 via a special life-alert system, or provide physical stimulation. Like many service dogs, they are trained to retrieve medication. Diabetic alert dogs use their sense of smell to detect episodes of high or low blood sugar and warn their owners. Severe allergy alert dogs let their handlers know about life-threatening allergens nearby.

Service dogs are remarkable in their training and dedication. And though it's tempting to give them a pat or say hello, please don't. Service dogs out in public are at work. Correct etiquette is to ignore them, so they are not distracted from their job.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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