When you’re considering getting a service dog it’s important that you take the time to talk to your medical team. After all, service dogs are medical equipment. You’re not going to randomly go buy an oxygen tank if your doctor says you don’t need it (or you haven’t talked to the doctor about the issue in the first place).
Having you medical professionals on board with you obtaining a service dog can also help you if you ever run into legal issues. Having a respected doctor stand up for you and say that yes, the dog is, in fact, part of your treatment plan and that you require it can make a huge difference.
It’s a good idea to work closely with your medical team when adding a new piece to your treatment plan. They can help you determine the most effective ways to utilize your service dog and what tasks will benefit you the most.
Depending on your doctor, getting them on board with your plan of getting a service dog should be fairly easy so long as you’re prepared.
Before Your Appointment
There are a few things you should do before your appointment to make sure you’re prepared to discuss getting a service animal with your medical provider.
The most important thing you need to know before going in is what tasks a dog could do for you. You should make a list and include the ways these tasks would help mitigate your disability. For example, a task could be picking up things you drop and it could help mitigate your disability by saving you from having to bend over and causing more pain.
If you aren’t totally sure how a service could help you, your doctor (or whichever medical professional you are meeting with) might be able to help you determine that. Check out The Giant List of Service Dog Tasks and How to Choose Your Service Dog’s Tasks as additional resources.
Have you had the disability talk with your doctor yet? If not, depending on your doctor and your illness, you may need to prepare for that. Make a list just of the ways your major life functions are limited by your illness(es). This talk can be hard for some people, so make sure you’re mentally prepared as well as possible and take care of your mental health the best you can. A good resource is Do I Qualify for a Service Dog? Diagnosis vs Disability.
Many doctors are unfamiliar with service dog law so it becomes your job to educate them. Some don’t even realize that nowadays there are service dogs for things other than guiding visually impaired individuals. Make sure that you’re well informed on the laws before going in to your appointment and maybe even take a copy of the ADA FAQ with you to your appointment. Even though Title II of the ADA doesn’t require a doctor’s note (or their approval of your decision to get a service dog) it’s still a great document for answering basic questions about service dogs.
At Your Appointment
Now that you’re prepared it’s time to actually go in for an appointment to discuss it.
Make sure you take
- the task list and
- the list of ways that your illness(es) impair your ability to carry out major life functions
with you to your appointment.
Ask for their approval and support:
After you get to your appointment, I suggest just asking if they agree with your decision and see how they respond. Depending on the doctor and your disability it may simply be a matter of asking. If this works that’s great! Having your medical team on board makes a huge positive difference in the process.
If your doctor is hazy about it:
If your doctor is unsure about whether or not you could benefit from a service dog you should find out why. Do they think you meet the definition the ADA gives for an individual with a disablity? Do they not understand how a service dog could assist you? Once you find out what’s holding them back then you can proceed.
- If it’s because they don’t think you meet the definition given by the ADA for disabled: This is the time to bring out your list of ways your illness(es) impact your major life functions. Explain to your doctor all the ways you’re limited and why you think you are legally disabled. If they still won’t budge then you need to sit back and consider whether they’re right or not. In some cases, the doctor is right and you may not fit the criteria for being legally disabled. However, in some cases the doctor is wrong and you may need to talk to another doctor about it. For example, if you talked to your primary care doctor first it may be time to talk to one of your specialists about it since they generally know the impact of the illness better than a primary care doctor would.
- If it’s because they don’t understand how a dog could help you: This is the time to bring out your list of tasks. Explain to your doctor the various things a dog could be trained to do for you and how each could improve your quality of life. Make sure you’re extremely clear about exactly how each potential task would mitigate your disability. When I went through this process I found it worked well to list around five tasks that could mitigate my disability.
If your doctor is still unwilling to sign off for you to have a service animal:
At this point, if you’ve gone through both lists and they’re still refusing there’s unfortunately not much you can do besides trying another one of your doctors. You can’t force them to agree with your decision that you would benefit from a service animal.
If they agree with you now is a good time to ask for a doctor’s note:
Although doctor’s notes aren’t required for public access in the United States, they are required for a few different situations. Find out more about when you need a note by reading Service Dog Letters: When Do You Need One?
Requesting reasonable accommodations for housing, work, and even airplane travel (with psychiatric service dogs) can all require a note from your doctor stating your need for a service dog. Additionally, some service dog programs and trainers require a note before they’ll even accept you into their program. Check out the Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, and Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act so that you’re aware of your rights before continuing.
Now that your doctors are in agreement that you could benefit from a service animal you can start the process of actually obtaining one. Whether you go through a program or train your dog yourself (with the help of a trainer) it’ll be far better in the long run when you have your medical professionals on your side.
If your doctor didn’t agree with your decision there’s not much you can do. You can try talking to your specialists (or your primary care if you started with your specialist) and see if they have a different opinion. If that doesn’t work then re-evaluate your decision critically and see if maybe there’s a reason they’re not agreeing that you would benefit from a service dog. If you’ve re-evaluated and you’re positive that you would benefit from a service dog then you can proceed but keep talking to your doctors about it. Maybe once they see the impact having a service dog has on your health they’ll change their mind and support your decision.