It’s an emergency, you and/or your guide dog are injured, first responders are arriving with sirens screaming… what do you do? If this moment is the first time you have given this question any thought it’s too late. Your best chance of you and your guide dog making your way through an emergency is for you, the handler, to give it some serious thought and come up with plans for various scenarios. Here, planning can make the difference between life and death for you and your guide dog.
Know your rights.
First, be ready to explain to first responders that you have a service animal and that you have the legal right to be evacuated with your service animal. Further, plan for a scenario where you are not conscious and cannot explain anything to anyone; i.e., make sure your guide dog has sufficient tags identifying them as a guide dog and you as a person with vision loss.
Have a go-bag for you and your dog. A go-bag contains all the things you might need for you and your dog for at least two weeks in a shelter; e.g., food, copies of medical records, medicines, bowls, extra water, a white cane, and anything you and your dog might need. Put these things in a carrier that you can carry without using your hands (i.e., a fanny-pack and/or back-pack), so you keep your hands free to handle your dog or use a cane. Organize your emergency items with the most-used on top and the least-used on the bottom.
Engage in self-advocacy.
While you are developing your emergency kits and plans for you and your dog, engage in advocacy dialogue with your local emergency preparedness authorities. Don’t assume that emergency personnel know about or have planned for the inclusion of persons with disabilities and their service animals. Get to know who runs your area’s emergency programs and advocate to make sure that people with disabilities and their service animals are included in any comprehensive emergency plans. The plans should consider all emergency contingencies (i.e., lockdowns, shelter in place, evacuation) with the assumption that the animal and the user will not be separated. However, always remember that the care or supervision of your service animal is solely the responsibility of you as handler.
Similarly, keep your employer in the loop and make sure you and your dog are included in any emergency plan. Participate in emergency drills at your place of employment, so both you and your dog can become acclimated to the sounds and activity of emergency protocols. Notify your employer of things that could be done better – i.e., take an active part in your own safety.
Many employers (as well as apartment complexes and housing associations) use floor wardens and/or buddy systems to ensure that all personnel are accounted for. Participate in the training of these wardens and buddies so you, your dog, and they become part of a well-functioning team. Also ensure safe areas and shelters have been protected and treated so that they are safe for service animals. Finally, you and your dog should make some practice runs under emergency conditions, familiarizing yourselves with both the primary and secondary escape routes.
Generally, your guide dog can ride with you in the ambulance.
Remember, your service animal has the right to accompany you anywhere during an emergency, but it is your job to keep your dog under control.
Separating a disabled person from their service animal could cause serious mobility problems, as well as heightened anxiety and stress in both handler and dog. Providers may only exclude a service animal from transport with its handler when the animal’s behavior is out of control and the handler does not or cannot take effective action to control it.
Your guide dog cannot be excluded from the ambulance simply because it is inconvenient. If your dog is to ride with you, first responders should put you and your stretcher in first, then tether the dog so that it is safe. Guide dogs may also ride in front with the driver if space permits.
If your guide dog is attacked.
Attacks on service animals by pet dogs are a common problem and can cause serious mobility problems for disabled handlers. Service dogs require immediate attention and may require more resources than in other dog-on-dog attacks. Because of their disability, the handler may be vulnerable to injury from the aggressor dog and left exposed to traffic and environmental hazards. Service dogs may be unable to defend themselves because they are harnessed and leashed. You, as the handler-advocate, can work with local authorities to formulate a plan whereby your injured guide dog is transported to a 24-hour veterinary facility while you are taken to the hospital.
What to do if the police want to take your dog.
Finally, what should you do if someone has accused your guide dog of some kind offense and the police come and want to take away your dog?
First, do not answer the door: pretend you are not at home. Unless there are emergency circumstances, authorities need a warrant to enter and search your premises.
Do not speak to authorities from an open doorway. If you are already outside or have come out of your abode, close the door behind you. Anything in plain sight can be used against you—including your dog.
If the officers claim to have a warrant, demand to see it. Take a picture of it with your phone. Either make the authorities read you the entire warrant or get a sighted companion (or a service like Be My Eyes) to read you the entire warrant. Keep in mind that a warrant must be signed by a judge. The warrant will likely be very narrow, meaning the police will likely have only one area of the home which they can search. Politely ask them to leave after they have searched the area specified in the warrant.
When being questioned by the police:
- Get the name and badge number of every officer involved
- Do not answer any questions beyond identifying yourself to the officer. Do not even admit to owning a dog. Do not lie, but just remain silent.
- Tell them you want to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions beyond general identifying information, such as your name, address, and driver’s license information
- Be polite but firm.
- Keep your hands in plain sight; and
- Resist the urge to give an explanation.
- RECORD EVERYTHING.
Some useful resources:
1 Have A Plan:
2 Helping people with service animal:
3 Emergency personnel: what to do with the dog?
4 Know your rights/responsibilities under your state’s laws:
5 What to do when the police want to take your dog:
6 Pet fire safety:
7 Rights of handler/dog re ambulance/hospital: