Service dogs are amazing. They can assist people who are blind or deaf. They can detect seizures before they happen and blood sugar levels that are going out of control. They can reach things that are out of reach for people in wheelchairs. They can alert their handler to the presence of deadly allergens. They can keep children with autism from running away.

Different countries have different laws and regulations related to service dogs differ. I’ll be talking mostly about laws in the US, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. If you have information about service dogs in other countries, please add it the comments!

What is a service dog?

A service dog is a dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate the disability of its handler. Therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, and companion animals are wonderful, but they are not service dogs, so the rules that apply to service dogs do not apply to them.

Where can service dogs go?

Most government offices, nonprofit agencies, and businesses must allow service dogs to accompany the people who use them. If the person can enter a space, the dog can go with them. There are some exceptions. At a zoo, for example, you can’t take a service dog into areas where their presence would upset or agitate the animals on display.

The biggest exception is for places of worship. In the US, because of the First Amendment, churches are exempt from laws that require access for service dogs. Churches can admit service dogs, and most do, but they don’t have to.

How do you know if a dog is really a service dog?

You have to trust the handler.

In the US, a service dog is not required to wear a vest or other visible identification. And there is no certification or documentation to prove that a dog is a service dog. Furthermore, it’s generally illegal to ask for such documentation. (It’s also silly to ask, since the documentation doesn’t exist.) You can ask if a dog that is brought into your premises is a service dog. You can also ask what tasks it has been trained to perform. You’re required to accept the answer you’re given.

The law requires that the handler always have the dog under control. That usually means leashed and on the floor. While a service dog is allowed in restaurants and theaters and ballparks, the dog is not allowed on seating provided for humans. And the law does not require anyone to allow a service dog to be disruptive. If the dog is not under control, if it barks, sniffs at people, grabs at food, growls, or otherwise behaves in ways unbecoming of a service dog, you can ask the handler to remove the dog.

The US Department of Justice provides helpful information about service dogs, if you want to know more.

What about Orthodox churches?

As noted above, churches are the major exception to US laws that require access for service dogs. At an Orthodox church in the US, it’s up to the priest or the bishop.

Some Orthodox churches always admit service dogs that arrive with people who have disabilities. Some never admit service dogs under any circumstances. A few admit them on a case-by-case basis, with limits that are important to know. We experienced all of these when our youngest child used a service dog.

Because nobody likes surprises, if you have a service dog, you should always call before you arrive at an Orthodox church to verify that church’s policy.

That said, I’ve tried to assemble a list of parishes that are known to allow people with disabilities to bring their service dogs. The fact that a church isn’t on the list doesn’t mean that it doesn’t allow service dogs. It just means that no one has told me that they do. And it’s always possible that the policy has changed since I got the information. If you learn of a church that should be added to the list, or removed from it, please let me know.

Orthodox churches that allow service dogs

The following parishes allow people with disabilities to bring their service dogs on a case-by-case basis, with advance notice:
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Akron, Ohio
St. Innocent of Alaska Orthodox Church, Silverdale, Washington

The following parishes always allow people with disabilities to bring their service dogs:
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church, San Juan Capistrano, California
St. Mark’s Orthodox Church, Denver, Colorado
St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church, Indianapolis, Indiana
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Durham, North Carolina
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Jackson, Tennessee
Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Austin, Texas
Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church, Shoreline, Washington

If a service dog visits your parish

If your parish permits people with disabilities to bring their service dogs, you should treat the service dog the same way you’d treat their crutches or wheelchair or cane. Don’t offer it treats, and don’t touch it without permission. The service dog is there as a four-footed, intelligent assistive device. It’s working. Let it do its job.

In our culture, medical information is generally considered personal, and asking for that sort of information is rude and intrusive. That’s just as true for people who use service dogs as it is for anyone else. The person may voluntarily share limited information. They may even have a tag on their dog that says “Medical alert dog” or the like. But, as a matter of courtesy and dignity, it’s up to the person to decide how much to share. Don’t ask a person who uses a service dog what’s wrong with them or why they need the service dog.

And please, whatever you do, do not suggest that the person doesn’t need the service dog at church because you or other people can do whatever it is that the dog does. You can’t. And most people with service dogs find the idea amusing at best, and offensive at worst. Respect the person who uses the dog, and accept their judgment about what they need.

If you’re thinking of passing your pet off as a service dog

Don’t. Just don’t. Even if it’s a therapy dog or an emotional support animal. Especially if it’s just a pet. For one thing, it’s illegal in some states. But, more importantly, your deception makes it more likely that a person who has a real service dog will be turned away.

Read More

Disabilities and Special Needs in the Church: A few things that people with disabilities would like to tell you.

Farewell, Beloved Dog: A few thoughts on the death of a retired service dog.

Hello Goodbye Dog: A Review: The dog in this delightful story is not a service dog, even though the dog’s human uses a wheelchair. It starts out as a pet, and ends up as a classroom therapy dog.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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