One of the most important aspects to understand about service dog vests is this: they are optional. According to the ADA, it is not a requirement for an assistance dog to wear a vest of any kind. Many service dog handlers choose to have their service dog in a vest or harness, but it is not a requirement.
Unfortunately, too many businesses still fail to train their employees on this and many other aspects of the service dog regulations under the ADA. This leads to the frequent comment, “this is not a service dog; service dogs are required to wear vests.” That is 100% incorrect, as the service animal section of the ADA website prominently highlights. Service dogs also don’t need IDs, registrations, or official papers and can be owner-trained.
Selecting a Service Dog Vest
There are several considerations for selecting a service dog vest for your dog. I want to share some of my past experiences. As a service dog trainer, I have used a wide variety of gear with my service dogs. One thing never changes. At some point, someone in public will react to your service dog gear. A vest can read ‘Service Dog’; some people will still ask if your dog is a service dog. It happens frequently. When I first started taking service dogs in public, I thought I would only get that question with a guidance harness or something like that. But, I quickly discovered that any service dog vest draws unwanted attention.
One of the first things I tried was using a larger vest with velcro areas to place patches on my service dog. I hoped that the patches on the vest would explain things, so I didn’t have to. Some days, I don’t have the energy to deal with public inquiries. I want to go into a store, get my stuff done and leave without people bothering me. Too often, I don’t have the energy to deal with something extra. I wanna get in and get out.
Vest and Harness Uses
Service dog vests and harnesses help people with disabilities in various ways. They may or may not have patches indicating a working dog. Common vest and harness usages are:
- Indication: A common usage for vests is to indicate that the dog is a service dog and at work. As discussed, this is optional, but many service dog handlers chose to do so in the hope it will reduce public interference.
- Stability: People who need a dog to help them stabilize while walking or standing will use special stability harnesses. These commonly have handles, but depending on the stability task may not.
- Mobility: Mobility harnesses are often more elaborate than stability harnesses. Common functions are to help people get up, pull doors open, or provide other forms of leverage.
- Guidance: Guide dogs for the blind wear special-purpose harnesses to guide a blind person. These also usually have handles.
- Carrying: Harnesses with side pouches or backpacks can carry essential medical supplies or medications for a disabled person. They may also provide light carrying ability for some shopping. A dog can safely carry items up to 10% of its body weight for hours.
- Notification: A service dog may have special patches or other instructions on its gear. If such a dog approaches you without a person, it may be looking for someone to help its owner. That is the only scenario in which you should read everything written on its gear and assist as necessary or call 911 if indicated.
Vest Patches Can Backfire
Me being me, I order patches, but do I get ordinary patches? No, I got cute, sassy ones. Just like me. I have to let my personalities shine through somewhere. That backfired. We drew a crowd several times because people would stop and read all the cute patches and giggle. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted. That’s when I decided the larger service dog vests with all the patches were not for me. I say go for it if you’re up for drawing a crowd. But I usually work with such limited energy that extra effort is something I try to avoid.
Then, I tried getting a service dog vest that looked very pretty and straightforward. It read, ‘Service Dog – Please No Touch, No Talk, No Eye Contact.’ I loved that vest until this very nice lady walked straight up to us and started rubbing the vest. Ironically, she rubbed the ‘No Touch’ part and asked if it was embroidered. You can’t make this stuff up.
I don’t do this, but I have seen many people dye their service dog’s hair, creating cool looks. However, if you do not want people to react—negatively or positively—toward your decision to color your service dog, you may want to rethink the hair color.
Storm’s Service Dog Gear
My service dog Storm has many different service dog vests we regularly use. Currently, I need extra assistance with balance, so I got him some additional, custom counterbalance gear to help me. Sometimes his service dog gear reads ‘Service Dog,’ but it’s become more of a rarity. I try to stay on the invisible side, for the most part, when we are in public.
Service dog handlers have many vest and harness options. Several brands offer specialized, high-quality service dog equipment. One brand I like is YupCollars.com. Their lightweight, custom service dog gear works well for us.