Alex Russell and Kevin have visited schools, hospitals jails and local businesses | Photos by Ruta Smith

Working like a  Dog

It can be tempting to rush over to pet that fluffy dog with a bright, happy face, but if it’s wearing a special vest or bandana, it could be hard at work, and it may have some very important responsibilities.

Any animal can perform tasks that help his or her owners, but some of the most important jobs are as service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals. 

The differences can be nuanced, and sometimes it can be difficult to see at a glance if an animal is working, leading to other troubling misconceptions.

“It can really discredit those who rely on their dogs for survival,” said Diana Bouchet, who has an emotional support animal, a 6-year-old husky named Meika. “It’s just a matter of education and communication, letting people know that when we’re in a store, or she’s in her vest, she’s working.”

Interacting with one of these working animals can distract them from their tasks at hand, which can make daily life more difficult for those who rely on their help.

Service animals

Service animals perform some of the most complex tasks of the three groups. But it’s also a broad term. A service animal is any animal individually trained to work or perform tasks that benefit someone with a disability, such as detecting blood sugar levels, predicting epileptic episodes, pulling wheelchairs or even flipping a light switch.

John Hayes has been a service animal trainer for eight years | Provided

John Hayes, trainer with The Dog Wizard in Charleston and Good Shepherd, based in Chattanooga, has been working with service animals in training for eight years.

“Very early on in my life, I started learning about dog behavior,” he said. “The first service animal I trained was for myself. She was amazing, and I thought, ‘Man, I want to help other people.’ I just dropped everything, leapt into that world and haven’t looked back since.”

Hayes said training a service animal can look intense and intimidating at first, but to a dog, it’s fun. “We make it fun for the dog,” he said. “We call it a job for the dog, but to them, it’s a game.”

Beginning with an interview with the client to determine if they need a service animal and have the capacity to handle one, the early stages of training look similar to what you might get for your own pet. 

“Typically, the first thing we do is work on obedience,” Hayes said. “We want it to be sharp. I want a dog that, I can say, ‘Heel,’ and there could be bombs going off and they aren’t going to break that heel command.”

Hayes said it could take months just to get to that point before moving on to service training, which can look different depending on the task. This is where the fun comes in for the dog.

 Some dogs are naturals, like Meika. While she was a puppy and undergoing behavior training, the trainer noticed an odd quirk. Just as Bouchet was beginning to get hungry, Meika, 11 months old at the time, would tap her leg with her nose. 

“[Her trainer]  looked at me and said, ‘You realize what she’s doing is a characteristic we look for in diabetic service animals? She’s alerting to your low blood sugar,’ ” Bouchet recalled.

While all dogs’ sensitive noses let them detect things that humans would be unable to tell themselves, like blood sugar levels or blood pressure, not all instinctively alert to them.

Meika is about three-quarters through her service-animal training, a process more than a year in the making. And while Bouchet herself isn’t diabetic or in need of a specific service from Meika, she’s hoping her dog will be able to help others in need.

Therapy dogs

Local mental health worker and advocate Alex Russell and her dog Kevin, a retired racing greyhound who turns 10 on Christmas Eve, are a veteran pair when it comes to helping others. Kevin is a therapy dog, specifically trained to provide comfort and clarity to those struggling with mental health issues. 

Russell and Kevin are a mental-health-professional dream team, with Russell leading the conversations and Kevin being there for support. Whether someone comes to them and sits down for a while to talk one-on-one, or Russell brings Kevin to a workspace for a sense of comfort, just a short time with Kevin makes a big difference.

“When people stop and engage with an animal, they start to feel more comfortable in a sense — more open to sharing how they’re really doing,” she said. “That’s given me a lot of opportunities to normalize not being OK and destigmatize mental health. He’s a great catalyst for getting people to open up.”

“After just 10 minutes with a therapy animal, those feel-good hormones [like dopamine or serotonin] start to get released,” Russell said. “I’ve worked with a lot of people who, just after a few minutes of petting Kevin, will start opening up about their day. Before that, their responses may have been just, ‘Good,’ ‘Fine.’”

Kevin’s training was less rigorous than what service animals go through, with most centering around advanced behavioral training. But what sets him apart from other pets are the cues when he’s on the job — notably, his wardrobe of bandanas.

“When he sees that therapy-animal bandana, he knows he’s about to be working,” Russell said.

Kevin has worked in schools, hospitals, county jails and more — he was the pioneer therapy dog at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he and Russell worked before moving to Charleston in 2019. Most recently, he’s been traveling to local workplaces to help Russell lead mental health workshops for businesses in the Lowcountry with her new startup, Mental Health Minded. 

Emotional support animals

Emotional support animals also serve a similar role to therapy animals, providing a sense of comfort and companionship that often goes beyond a pet-owner relationship. While Meika is in training to be a service dog, she is also registered as Bouchet’s emotional support animal. 

“When I was in school at the University of South Carolina, I was stressing about a heck of a lot of stuff,” Bouchet said. “She must have been 11 months old at the time, but she walked over to me and looked up at me, like, ‘It’s OK. You got this.’ That little comfort, that look, and I started thinking about how interesting it was she could pick up on that.”

But that support and comfort is where the similarities between emotional support animals and other working dogs end. Support animals don’t need any specific training, and they don’t get the same protections as  service animals

Meika being Bouchet’s emotional support animal wasn’t always the plan. In fact, Meika was originally a foster dog, only meant to be taken care of for a short time. But Bouchet couldn’t bear to give her back.

“You don’t really think about it,” she said. “You always think, ‘Oh that’s just my dog. My cool dog. My pretty dog. But she had this skill at pretty much a puppy age. That’s when everything started to click for us.”

One of the greatest benefits of an emotional support animal is how easy it is for your beloved pet to become one. 

“I think every dog has the ability to do the same thing Meika does, it’s just a matter of whether people will encourage it or not,” Bouchet said. “It’s just up to the owner.”

The lowdown on working dogs

Working dogs are often exempt from pet restrictions, often providing vital support systems for their handlers. 

Service animals can go just about anywhere their handlers can, and are offered protections by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

• All people with disabilities have the legal right to use their service animal in public areas

• “No-pet” policies do not apply to service animals, even in places that sell or prepare food

• Service animals come in all breeds and sizes and are not required to wear special identifiers when at work (though it does help differentiate them from other pets)

• Businesses may not ask a person to prove their disability or for proof of service animal certification

• Others should always ask before touching a service animal. Any form of distraction could cause problems for the handler — even when the handler is seated

Emotional support animals aren’t awarded most protections that service animals qualify for. But they may be eligible for exemptions for pet bans in housing under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). And the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires airlines to allow emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft. In both cases, documentation is often required.

Despite going through more training than an emotional support animal, therapy animals are afforded even fewer of the privileges given to service animals, even when in “uniform.” Since they aren’t trained for specific tasks, rarely are they a necessary companion to their handlers, meaning they can’t accompany them in stores or other private locations where animals are prohibited. And they don’t qualify for the same housing exemptions granted by the FHA or ACAA.