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Wearing A Service Dog Vest Isn’t an All-Access Pass

 In Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy, PPH Blog, Training

When you think of a service dog, you might imagine a fluffy golden retriever, a sleek black lab, or perhaps a strong shepherd — but no matter what breed comes to mind, you probably picture them wearing a brightly colored vest.

Assistance animals often wear vests when they’re out in public. At Paws for Purple Hearts, our service dogs (including service dogs in training) wear purple (our favorite color!), but you can find vests in all colors.

Because anyone can buy a similar-looking vest for their pooch, whether it’s a pet or a working dog, some people wonder if the vest is what makes a service dog “official.” Is the vest what allows a dog access to public places?

The short answer is “no.” Wearing a vest (even one that’s labeled “Service Animal”) doesn’t give a dog permission to accompany their owner into a place of business.  This is because a vest on its own doesn’t make it a service dog — that goes for our pups, too!

PPH Sandy wears her vest when training out in public
PPH Sandy wears her vest when training out in public

The vest doesn’t make the service dog

If the vest isn’t what designates a service animal, what does identify a pup as a service dog?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a dog must meet two main criteria to be considered a service animal:

First, the dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” If a dog isn’t trained to do at least one task, it isn’t a service animal.

Secondly, the task(s) that the dog performs “must be directly related to the person’s disability.” Your dog may be trained to sit, but if that doesn’t directly assist with your disability, that task doesn’t make her a service animal.

Pups of all kinds can sport a vest, but if they don’t meet these two criteria, they aren’t considered a service animal under ADA guidelines — instead, they may be an emotional support animal or therapy dog (which follow different criteria), or simply a fashionably-dressed pet.

PPH Atte on her first public outing
PPH Atte on her first public outing

What allows handlers to bring their service dogs to the store?

A service dog’s training, behavior, and specific job — not the vest — is what allows her to accompany her handler into a grocery store or shopping center.

The ADA requires that businesses “allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go” so handlers can have their dog’s assistance.

In these situations, it is expected that the service animal behaves in a non-disruptive manner. The ADA specifies that a business owner may ask a person to remove their dog if “the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it.”

PPH Scout wears his vest on public outings
PPH Scout wears his vest on public outings

If the dog meets the ADA’s criteria for a service animal and is well-mannered and non-disruptive, then the handler has the right to have their service dog alongside them. This is why we do plenty of training to ensure our four-legged partners can remain calm and comfortable in public.

The presence of a vest doesn’t deny or allow a dog access into a business. In fact, service dogs aren’t legally required to wear a vest, ID tag, or special harness at all.

So, why do service dogs wear vests?

If the vest doesn’t make a service dog “official” and it’s not required, why bother wearing a vest?

While a service animal doesn’t need a vest, wearing one can be helpful for both the dog and the handler. Many people, including the Warriors we serve, choose to have their service dog wear a vest for two reasons:

First, as a courtesy to fellow citizens and business owners, signifying that this dog performs a service and that she is currently working. The vest helps the rest of us identify that the dog is doing a job, so we know not to distract her attention by trying to approach or pet her.

PPH Delta wears her vest to the grocery store
PPH Delta wears her vest to the grocery store

Secondly, the vest provides a physical cue that helps the dog differentiate between “work time” and “off time.” While service dogs are always ready to assist their handlers if needed, they may not be on the clock at all hours of the day. They like to relax and play outside of work, just like humans do!

At Paws for Purple Hearts, our dogs learn that when the vest is on, it’s time to pay attention and take their job seriously. Taking the vest off, usually paired with a verbal command, tells the dog it’s OK to let loose and run around. Handlers often choose to put the vest on when going out in public as a way to tell their dog, “I need your support now, so it’s time to be calm and focused.”

A vest is a tool, not an all-access pass

A vest is a nice-to-have, but not necessary for service dog classification. So how do you differentiate between pups wearing vests for fun and for work?

As a citizen, if you see a dog wearing a labeled vest, it’s safe to assume this is a working dog providing a service. Refrain from approaching or trying to pet the dog, and allow her to focus on her work.

As a business owner, if a patron enters your business with a dog wearing a vest and it’s not obvious whether it is a service animal, you may ask the handler the following two questions under the ADA:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

A service dog is a highly-trained partner for life

Think a service dog may be right for you? Veterans and Service Members can submit an application through our website. Paws for Purple Hearts trains and places service dogs with Warriors facing physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and other trauma-related conditions. We cannot provide these important services at no cost to our Warriors without the wonderful support of so many generous donors. Please consider supporting our mission and make a contribution today on our website to support these American heroes.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Karen Diamond

    Great to read this post. Lots of good information I didn’t know. Service dogs are so important and PPH is wonderful to provide these dogs to warriors. Thank you for writing this.

    • Paws for Purple Hearts

      Thanks for your feedback! We can not provide these wonderful service dogs without the generous support of so many patriotic Americans!

  • Marcia McCrea

    Thank you for providing such a valuable service to our warriors!

    • Paws for Purple Hearts

      Hi Marcia,

      Thank you for your comment and for your support!

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