Do Vegans Support the Use of Service Dogs?

In my post about whether dogs and cats can go vegan, I briefly addressed the question of whether it’s contradictory for vegans to own pets in general. But one especially controversial topic is whether vegans support the use of service dogs, such as guide dogs and hearing dogs.

So, do vegans support the use of service dogs? Vegans don’t agree about the use of service dogs. Some vegans view it as a form of exploitation. But not all vegans agree with this. In practice, most vegans seem to be fine with most uses of service dogs.

In this article, I’ll dig into the details of why some vegans are philosophically opposed to the use of service dogs, as well as the specific details of how service dogs are treated and all the specific points of contention to look at.

I’ll also try to note the differences that exist in the treatment of guide dogs, hearing dogs, therapy dogs, seizure response dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and other service dogs.

Why Many Vegan Activists Oppose the Use of Service Dogs

First, let’s address the big picture of why some vegans are opposed to the use of service dogs. Then we can look more specifically into how service dogs are bred, trained, and treated throughout their lives.

So, as with many issues relating to veganism, the philosophical issue comes down to exploitation and consent. Service dogs, of course, did not choose to be service dogs. They did not sign up for that life.

Service dogs did not apply for the job. Service dogs did not enter into a contract willingly, based on having full knowledge and understanding of how it would affect their lives.

Although you could say that service dogs are “paid” in the form of food, shelter, and veterinary care, there is a certain sense in which their labor is being exploited.

Unlike most forms of pet ownership, service dogs are bought and sold to carry out specific labor. Much like vegans opposing the use of circus animals, there is a sense that service dogs are being forced into a life of servitude.

Some Vegans View Service Dogs as Slaves

When I was researching for this article, I even saw the suggested common search query, “service dogs are slaves.”

I don’t know if this has mostly been searched by vegans or if this is a thought that a wider part of the population has had, too. But it is essentially vegan logic to notice the potential similarity between the use of service dogs and slavery and to be concerned about that.

That said, does the comparison between the use of service dogs and slave labor really make sense?

Let’s look at the specific practices in the breeding, training, selling, and life cycle of service dogs to see how much of a problem there really is.

Breeding of Service Dogs: Should Vegans Support It?

Vegan and animal welfare organizations like PETA tend to oppose pretty much all selective breeding of companion animals, and that definitely includes breeding for new service dogs.

One of the interesting issues when considering the breeding of service dogs is that hearing dogs are often adopted from shelters and then trained.

So vegans and others who are concerned about the breeding of service dogs will sometimes see that and applaud it. But then they ask, Why aren’t rescued and adopted dogs used for the other kinds of service work, too?

But this is where you have to respect the differences between different dog breeds and how it affects their temperament, what they can be trained to do, and how well they can eventually do it.

Should Only Adopted or Rescued Dogs Be Used for Service Work?

Just because adopting dogs and turning them into hearing dogs works for Dogs for the Deaf doesn’t necessarily mean that any dog can become any kind of service dog.

In my opinion, it makes sense that dogs of specific breeds are bred to perform certain kinds of service. I also think it makes sense for them to be raised in an environment that prepares them for that kind of service from a very early age.

It makes sense that adopting dogs from shelters to be trained for this service work would not be a feasible option in too many cases.

Training of Service Dogs: Should Vegans Support It?

One of the interesting sources of commentary I found about the training of service dogs was Jennifer Arnold. She is the founder of Canine Assistants, a non-profit that provides service dogs to people with disabilities.

Arnold has actually come out and said that service dogs are slave labor, and she’s had quite critical things to say about some of the training schools that exist for service dogs.

The big issue of concern to vegans and animal welfare activists may be whether service dogs are being trained with positive reinforcement or punishment.

Studies have apparently shown that positive training methods are most effective, so there is no reason to use harsh training methods based on punishment. But many training schools still do.

One interesting point is that, at many service dog training schools, if a specific dog doesn’t seem well-suited to being a service dog—if they are too distracted, too poorly behaved, etc—they will be dropped from the training program.

As long as these “drop-out” dogs find their way to a good home, this is arguably a good way to make sure that the service dogs who do make it are well-suited to the job.

Taking all this into consideration, it seems that service dogs are treated much better at some training schools than others. So if you’re looking at getting a service dog as a vegan, you may want to really look into the specific training school you’re getting the dog from.

Treatment of Service Dogs: Should Vegans Support It?

You’ll sometimes see or hear instructions on a service dog vest saying “Don’t pet me, I’m working.” Similarly, I’ve heard vegans complain that service dogs are not allowed to sleep in the bed or have other comforts/fun things that dogs typically enjoy.

Some people also complain that service dogs don’t typically get any “days off”—they basically work 24/7, or they have to be ready to work 24/7 anyway.

But others say this concern is rooted in an unrealistic anthropomorphism. That is, service dogs don’t necessarily need/want the same “days off” that humans do, so you’re projecting your desires and needs onto the dogs unrealistically.

Service dog handlers themselves will admit that there are ethics that you need to responsibly follow as someone with a service dog.

If your service dog becomes sick or injured, you have to allow your dog time to heal up—you can’t demand that they keep working for you. Some number of service dog handlers out there don’t follow these ethical principles consistently. But that probably the exception, not the rule.

I’ve heard stories of people being mean to their service dogs. But again, as with the training section above, it seems that the bad examples you can find are not necessarily endemic to the use of service dogs as a whole.

What Happens to Old Service Dogs After They Retire?

Service dogs usually only have a career of about 6-10 years. So most of them will have a life after retirement. What is retirement usually like for service dogs, and is it objectionable from a vegan perspective?

I saw some criticisms that said retired service dogs sometimes get separated from the owners they’ve known for so long. That could be confusing or heartbreaking for the dogs.

Canine Assistants says that most of the time, old service dogs remain part of the same family. Another non-profit called Tender Loving Canines specifically says that the most common solution is for the retired dogs to be adopted by a close family member of the original owner.

Supposedly, being adopted by a close family member works even better than staying with the same owner. This is because it can be confusing for retired service dogs to be with the same human they’re accustomed to serving day-to-day, now with a different role as just being a pet.

In cases where a close family member isn’t able to adopt the retired dog, they will usually adopted by a stranger. It is rare for retired service dogs to be euthanized.

Considering all this, if there are cases where service dogs are being “dumped” in a heartless way after retirement, it doesn’t seem to be a systemic issue.

Of course, there are individuals all throughout society who abandon their pets, returning them to stores/shelters, etc. So even if this happens to service dogs in some instances, it’s not a problem unique to service dogs. It’s a broader issue with pets as a whole.

Should Human Caretakers Replace Service Dogs?

PETA has made arguments that human caretakers should fulfill the services usually served by guide dogs and other service dogs. I’ve heard a few other vegans make similar arguments, too.

But there are at least a few potential problems with the idea of replacing all service dogs with human caretakers:

1) It would be extremely expensive compared to the use of service dogs. A lot of people with disabilities do not have the money for a human caretaker to be there all the time or even regularly. So many of these costs would likely be paid by Medicare, which would increase taxes and redirect spending from other uses, right? However it would exactly affect the economy and other people, it seems like a significant cost to consider.

2) Part of the purpose of using service dogs is that it allows people with disabilities to be more independent. Someone with a service dog may feel like they have more privacy and are more independent and less of a burden on others compared to someone with a human caretaker serving a similar purpose.

3) Humans are not capable of performing all the same tasks that service dogs can perform. One example would be dogs used to help during seizures. Seizure alert dogs can even sense an oncoming seizure, somehow! Some service dogs can also sense low blood-sugar in their diabetic owners and warn them of it.

Should Apps Replace Service Dogs?

PETA has also celebrated the forthcoming use of GPS apps that help blind people to navigate without a guide dog. One such app might be Soundscape, which produces a “3D audio experience” to make users more aware of their surroundings.

Soundscape, however, “was designed to be used in addition to other navigation support methods such as guide dogs and canes.

I think if there were robust, reliable apps that replaced every function of a service dog, a lot of people might embrace that option, vegans and non-vegans alike. But I haven’t seen any evidence that we are at all close to achieving that.

One potential downside of replacing service dogs with technology is that service dogs provide love and companionship that a GPS app cannot.

Indeed, one source argued that the real healing power of a service dog for someone with a disability isn’t always the physical service: It’s the fact that the dog sees you as a perfect person, not flawed or disabled or anything less than. It’d be difficult to recreate that positive impact in an app.

Are Service Dogs Happy?

One of the most practical questions that any vegan could have about service dogs is whether they are happy in that life or not. Even though the dog is performing labor, and even though they were drafted into that life, not by their own choice, many vegans may decide that it’s okay as long as the dog enjoys it. Then it’s a win-win situation.

So, are service dogs happy? Most of the evidence seems to point to “yes,” although there may be exceptions, of course. Dogs that are well-suited to the type of work they’re called to do are most likely to be happy in their jobs. Overall, it seems that most service dogs are happy.

One study looked at therapy dogs that are brought into pediatric cancer units in the hospital to interact with patients. Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, but still, the results were reassuring.

Based on stress hormone levels as well as nonverbal cues to signal stress levels, researchers determined that the dogs generally enjoyed their work, although some tasks were more enthusiastically enjoyed compared to others.

Some people argue that service dogs actually have more fun day-to-day compared to other dogs. This is because many pet dogs are left alone at home for longer stretches, and many other dogs do not get to interact as extensively and consistently with their owners as service dogs do.

Dogs are social creatures, of course, and many of them seem to get a lot of fulfillment by satisfying their owner.

Many Dogs Love to Have a Job!

This is something I have observed since adopting my own dog. As a vegan, I obviously did not get my dog for hunting purposes. And I was not looking for a guard dog. But I’ve since realized that performing those tasks is what my dog instinctively wants to do.

When I take my dog on walks, she is really trying to hunt. She’s sniffing everything, and if she sees a squirrel or rabbit, she will dart after it.

My dog also can’t help but be a guard dog. She barks if someone is making noise outside in any kind of suspicious way. She growls and lunges at people who come near me on our walks.

Admittedly, I need to train her better to tame some of these impulses. But I’ve realized—dogs of her breed just love to be a hunting dog or guard dog. So even without me asking her to do work as a hunting dog or guard dog, she wants to do it. It seems to come naturally to her.

In doing the research for this post, I read many sources claiming that service dogs love to do their job. It gives them a role and a way to help, and many dogs have been bred to feel satisfied when they can please their human owners.

So I would caution a little bit against vegans potentially projecting this idea of service dogs being slaves. Of course, if a human was bred, trained, and used as a service dog is, that human is a slave.

But humans and dogs have different desires and ways of conceiving of ourselves and our lives. Not everything that is degrading or oppressive treatment toward humans is necessarily going to be such when applied to service dogs.

So, Is It Vegan to have a Service Dog?

Vegans disagree about whether the use of service dogs is okay. I think most vegans have a level of concern for service dogs, but it’s also clearly not the worst thing happening to animals in society today.

Much evidence says it’s a positive experience for the dogs. So who are we to call it exploitative and say they need to be liberated from it?

Again, this is a complicated question that depends on your underlying reasons for being vegan and how you think your vegan principles should be applied in the world.

There are several different logical positions you could hold on service dogs as a vegan. Decide for yourself what you believe.

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