First, let’s clear up a misconception.
Therapeutic service dogs are specially trained service animals prescribed by a doctor to help a person with a physical or developmental disability function in daily life.
They are NOT the same as family pets, which do not have a place in Orthodox Church services.
Therapeutic service dogs should be thought of along the same lines that one would think of any prescription from a doctor. If you wouldn’t require someone to stop taking their heart medication in order to come to church, you shouldn’t ask a family to leave a therapeutic service dog at home.
Watch this video that shows how service dogs help children with special needs attend church services.
If you see a service dog in church, how should you act towards the dog and owner (handler)?
Great questions! Here are some tips from my friend and faithful church-goer Jamey Cook, who is blind and has partnered with a service dog for many years:
- It is always appropriate to ask a guide dog user before looking at, petting, or talking to the dog.
- It is also OK to alert the handler to a behavior, such as telling him/her when the dog is trying to sneak a piece of cake at coffee hour.
- Should you need to alert the handler in the rare case of a dog’s inappropriate behavior, let the handler do the correcting. (If the dog is partnered with a child, the parent or an assistant might take care of the behavior.)
- It’s OK to direct the dog handler, but it’s not OK to grab the dog’s harness.
- Also, being occasionally stepped on is an occupational hazard for guide dogs–trying to avoid that is a good idea, but don’t worry to much if it happens accidentally.
I hope this post helps take the mystery out of how to welcome families with service dogs into church services.
Do you have experiences with trained therapeutic service dogs* in church services? Share in the comments.
This post is based in part on research for my forthcoming book co-written with Charlotte Riggle on welcoming families with special needs into the faith life and fellowship of the Orthodox Church. Follow this blog, like my page on Facebook, or subscribe to my quarterly newsletter for updates.
*For the sake of explaining to people unfamiliar with the range of service dogs, I have sometimes called therapeutic service dogs “therapy dogs” for short. There is another set of dogs called “therapy dogs” that specialize in visiting gently with people in schools or nursing homes. For the sake of this article and video, however, I am speaking of the specially trained service dogs who have a therapeutic role in the lives of their disabled human partner.*