When I was in vet school, I attended a guest lecture by a trainer for Guide Dogs for the Blind. As a part of the lecture, we watched a video on the training process these dogs must pass. It was unbelievable, what they had to learn and master in order to graduate.
“We take this very seriously,” said the trainer as we saw a dog being trained to sit quietly in an airliner simulator. “If these dogs don’t behave well in any circumstance we can think of, not only do they put their people at risk, they put the entire program at risk.”
We watched as a van backed up right to where a dog was walking on a sidewalk. “These dogs are goodwill ambassadors for service pets. If they behave poorly in restaurants or libraries or other places pets aren’t normally allowed, it makes society less tolerant of them and the important role they play.”
It costs upwards of $20,000 to train one of these dogs.
Fast forward 10 years, to me walking into an exam room at my job at an emergency hospital, where a jittery woman held her sick Pomeranian in her arms. “It’s a service dog,” she said, as the dog tried to bite my hand. “He’s a service dog. I get the service dog discount.”
This clinic offered a 70% discount for service animals. As proof, she held out a wrinkled piece of paper that said “This woman needs a pet because she has gout and that makes her anxious. Signed, the Doctor.”
“You see?” she said. “He has a vest too. I get my discount, right?” I was too busy scraping the dog off my ankle, which he was happily humping, to answer right away.
A few months later, another client asked me to furnish a letter saying his aggressive untrained intact Saint Bernard was of a sound temperament so he could then get a letter from his own doctor to make his dog a service dog. Picturing a small Girl Scout unfortunate enough approach too closely rattling around in his jaws, I referred the dog to a behaviorist for the evaluation.
I am in no way trying to diminish the very real benefit a service dog can have to people with what are classified as mental impairments as well as those with physical impairments. What I take issue with, and you should too, is the idea that any person who goes to their doctor for a Xanax here and there should be entitled to take their household pet around with them wherever they wish, without question.
The ADA is actually very specific about what distinguishes a service animal from a pet. This is from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners detailing the role of service animals in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome:
“According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual in order to be legally elevated from pet status to service animal status. It is the specially trained tasks or work performed on command or cue that legally exempts a service dog [service animal] and his disabled handler from the “No Pets Allowed” policies of stores, restaurants and other places of public accommodation under the ADA.”
“CLARIFICATION: While a dog’s companionship may offer emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does NOT qualify as a “trained task” or “work” under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a legitimate service dog. ”
The ADA is very clear on this: A service dog is NOT a pet.
But they are also very clear on this: you may not insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany the person with a disability.
So, what’s to stop a person from flat out lying about their pet being a service dog?
And if you don’t believe me that people take advantage of the situation in the most unbelievable of ways, let me remind you of the strange sordid saga of Charlotte the service pig.
Anyone with a credit card can buy a “certification” and a vest for a few hundred bucks. I’ve heard people with absolutely no medical conditions say, in all seriousness, that they are going to get one for their raucous dog so that they can conveniently take their untrained little precious into any restaurant they want. “And guess what?” they say gleefully. “According to the ADA no one can question me!”
Well, I can question it. And I do. Legally, the owner of a business may find their hands tied when faced when a person who says, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the pet sitting in its carrier doing nothing except baring its teeth is a highly trained service pet. They may be forced to allow the pet into an establishment where it misbehaves, makes a scene, defecates on the floor.
They will watch this scene, and then the animal and the owner will leave. And the next week, when a person with an exhaustively trained labrador shows up, that proprietor will let them in as well, but maybe he won’t be very happy about it. And that person will have no idea why.
I guess there is really nothing I can do about the abuse of this situation, except make it very clear to anyone who asks that I don’t find this loophole a cute convenience at all. Those who abuse it are delivering a slap in the face to those people whose day-to-day lives truly depend on the assistance of their service animals. They rely on the integrity of the training programs to maintain a minimum standard of decorum that ensures a service animal can and should be welcomed anywhere they need to be.
When I see spammers online trolling dog-friendly communities saying, “here you go! Send me $400 and you can take your pet wherever you want!” I admit I get a little heated. I can’t force anyone not to lie, not to take advantage of the situation- but I will say I believe in karma, and hoo boy, there are some people out there just begging to come back as sewer rats.
To reiterate, for those people who are using these services in a legitimate fashion, and have service pets trained in the manner outlined by the ADA, I have no beef with you. Though I do question what percentage of those sales are going to people with legitimate service pets.
I have recently developed a bit of a plane phobia. It was pretty bad this last time around, bad enough that I almost considered speaking to my doctor before getting on the plane about my terror and the hours I spent picturing myself hurtling towards terra firma in a fiery inferno every time we hit a bit of turbulence. It was quite upsetting, actually. I’m sure having Brody on my lap would have been a genuine comfort.
Sadly, I listen to my conscience and the thought of doing that never once occurred to me; instead I had to settle on a glass of poor quality box airline wine and a George Clooney movie. Which, incidentally, did nothing for me when the attendant came on the intercom as we were landing and spent a full 30 seconds telling us in excruciating detail what we should and should not take with us in the event of an emergency evacuation. I’m getting anxious just thinking about it. Off to pet Brody.