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.
i work in a grocery store and have had the pleasure of seeing true service dogs come in with their owners. these dogs are truly amazing and i’m always happy to see them.
however, i also have the weekly displeasure of seeing an older woman come in with a yappy lap dog who pees all over the cart and the floor every single time she comes in. as soon as we see her come in the building we know that we’re going to have to listen to that dog bark for a good hour (she’s a ~very~ slow shopper) and that sooner or later a mop will be needed. and that she will not say that a mop will be needed, we just have to play ‘find the puddle’.
i often daydream about acquiring an eagle as a service animal.
one specifically trained to carry off that stupid lap dog and deposit it somewhere far, far away.
Thank you for writing about this. One of my co-worker friends helped to train/foster a legit service animal through a local organization here, and it’s a slap in the face to what she and others do when people bring these “service” animals somewhere.
I thought, though, that while you can’t ask for proof of it being a service animal, you can ask a person to demonstrate how the animal assists them.
Dr. V says
You can ask, but good luck with that. “I’m not currently experiencing a problem so my dog can’t do his trick.” etc.
What are your thoughts on legislation requiring service animals to be state-licensed, out of curiosity? (I don’t even know if this is being discussed anywhere… but I think it should!)
I didn’t even know this happened *horrified*
I completely agree that people are abusing the loophole about people not allowed to question them. There are a few people in my town who do this, and the dogs are obvious not ADA standard.
Now I have to dive into the grey area. I have to admit, Prudence is far from the well behaved service dogs (I am working on it diligently though) but she has been the best thing for my post-traumatic stress disorder. I have never tried to take her into public places that don’t allow dogs, I’m respectful of the rules and have realized what you so eloquently described in terms of the proprietor’s feelings when it comes their feelings about service dogs. The only time I would ever get the golden ticket from my doctor is when it comes to housing. If I was ever forced to move into a place that has a specific “no dogs” rule, I would get the note from my doctor. That being said, I have been lucky and have found great places that are more lenient in terms of pets and I would never get a doctor’s note unless I was in dire straights.
Karen Friesecke says
thanks for sharing the Charlotte the Service Pig link. I’d heard about this story before & it was an interesting read.
My mother-in-law does this, it disgusts me and I openly refuse to go into an establishment that does not allow pets with her and her Yorkie. Her Yorkie is a very sweet dog, but it is by no means a service animal and I will not be party to her trying to take advantage of a program that I believe is extremely important for both the people and animals involved. I’m going to try to find a way to tactfully pass this on to her without starting WWIII.
I actually wrote a lawschool paper on this. Maybe I should try to publish it. There’s a difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog. The latter gets no rights. If you’re interested in reading it, let me know.
Dr. V says
Awesome. I’ll send it to you with disclaimers in email when I get home tonight. It’s not authoritative (unless I get published), but it should give some insight on the research and interpretation out there.
I deal with this all the time. I am a test administrator for a local therapy dog club. I am constantly telling people just because your dog is certified for therapy dog work they are not service dogs so they can’t go everywhere with you. It is so frustrating when people try to pass off there dogs as service dogs. It makes us responsible dog owners look bad.
Diane N says
I’ve seen this as well, and I’m just as irate with the obvious abusers as I am with those who take the designated parking for persons with a handicap because they’re just running into the store “for a minute.” Admittedly, you can’t always tell if someone has a handicap, but you can certainly tell when they have the proper decal or hang tag. And yes, some people “borrow” those for convenience too. In this case, though, the dogs get the bad rep as well as their inconsiderate (I was considering other words . . .) humans!
Lisa W says
Wow, people will take advantage of anything, I guess. I had to go to the ER a few months ago, and this woman brought in her mother, who had obviously fallen, and the mother’s dog. They insisted that the dog was a service dog, but the dog was simply riding on the mother’s lap in her wheelchair. They actually ended up asking for verification of the dog’s status because they wanted to take it into the ER around patients. I didn’t see how it ended up, but I remember thinking at the time that something didn’t seem right about that situation. Some people just suck.
i had the pleasure of volunteering in the clinic on a Guide Dogs for the Blind campus a while ago and it really is amazing what they train their dogs to do… and i do not think that a snappy-piddle-prone dog would be able to do the same things…
Wow! I can’t believe people do this!! Although i love my dog to death and do really wish i could take him with me places, fact is that you can’t! and there’s reasons for that! So he just rides in the car with me if I’m going somewhere that I’ll only be 10 or 15 mins 🙂
I cannot believe people try to take advantage of this! I know a teacher who has a service dog. She teaches emotionally and physically handicapped children, and the dog is such a help and comfort for those kids! She comes to my pilates class and brings Glory (the dog, a great pyr). She has a slideshow she does to show people what the dogs go through as far as training and certification. I just can’t imagine someone taking advantage of this with a dog who isn’t really a service dog!
Shauna (Fido & Wino) says
Here! Here! One of my dogs is a therapy dog and I’ve actually had a couple of people say, “Hey! You can call her a service dog now.” Nooooo. No I can’t. She is lovely, oh yes indeed. A service dog she is not 🙂
I used to work training service dogs and when I was out with a dog, people would often say to me, “I ought to get one of those [insert equipment here] for Fluffy. Then I could take her everywhere!” My response always included something about how their dog would have to actually behave like a service dog, because even real service dogs can be kicked out of place if they are acting inappropriately. The ADA’s own website clearly states that “You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others…” It goes on to give examples like, “out of control” and “vicious”. Obviously business owners have to tread lightly, as they would be in the position of having to prove that the animal was exhibiting bad behavior. On the other hand, saying that usually seemed to make the guy on the bus decided that Fluffy might not be up to the task.
I’ll join the chorus of appalled people. One woman who comes to the farmer’s market every Sunday wheels her orange-vested “service” dog around with her in a baby carriage and tells people to keep away from the yappy bugger because he is working. Yeah, right. It is she who is working. The system. And in doing so devaluing the hard work that goes into training genuine service dogs.
My ex-SIL bought a “guide dog in training” vest on eBay for her black lab so that she could take him everywhere–not that she needed him as a therapy dog or anything, she just wanted to take him places.
PISSED ME OFF.
I guess like anything there are idiots that are going to abuse something. And sadly it may backfire onto the legitimate and moral people. I would have loved to have taken Blade places but he got to go to Petsmart, a local pet boutique and outdoor festivals. It never crossed my mind to lie just so I could take him to some restaurant or Lowe’s. That sucks. People suck.
Very interesting. I’m Canadian and, though not yet familiar, am fairly confident proprietors can ask for verification/credentials of service animals as I have not witnessed any incidents as people have described here. I recently spoke to a representative at http://www.psychdogs.org. I was quite surprised at the amount of training that is required to qualify a dog for psychiatric service dog designation in the USA. I have an acquired brain injury and PTSD. Since my injury, I adopted a dog as a pup that has done tremendous work for me in terms of calming me during highly elevated emotional states, alerting me to PTSD triggers, cueing me to eat and more. I happen to disagree with the requirement of a service dog being able to complete a number of tasks for their people. I think the companionship sometimes is a tremendous task in itself. If a dog can give a person with PTSD the confidence to go out in public and interact with people, that in itself removes a massive barrier. I do, however, fully agree that service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and even companion dogs should be embassadors for their species. A well trained service dog can do wonders to break down barriers around a number of illnesses, both mental and physical, can be embassadors for their breeds (think pitbull types), and can even be embassadors for rescue pets in general. Whose mind wouldn’t be opened to adopting if they witness an adopted pet serving as a steadfast companion for a victim of sex assault out in public? It seems the laws need to be reviewed regarding service animals.
Maybe therapy dogs need a different title. It is just too similar I’m guessing and people really don’t get the distinction. Tons of people try to get their dogs to be therapy dogs because of their demeanor or they make people smile. I have the feeling that the two service dogs I’ve had experience with (one was a puppy in training that we used in a play to raise awareness and the other was newly-assigned to a blind woman who lived in my dorm at college) were never someone’s “pet” who just became a service dog!
There is a guide dog who catches my bus in the mornings with her person, she is a beautiful black Lab and is so good on a packed out bus, sitting in the aisle and her person even lets people pet her (which i know you arent technically supposed to do).
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart says
We have a neighbor who does this with his Great Pyrenees. It makes me sick to see him walking through Costco with his dog (who wears a way-too-small, homemade vest).
Did you see this in the NY Times a while back?
So where do you classify a dog who detects epilepsy in its owner? It probably won’t have specific ‘tricks’ to show you, it may not have had formal training because that sort of training is hard to obtain (and some people luck out and find a dog that does it naturally) and it’s an invisible disability.
I hate it when people abuse this sort of system, but on the other hand I have an invisible disability and have myself been accused of abusing the system because there’s nothing apparent wrong with me. As long as a dog is well trained and behaved, I don’t feel comfortable making judgements about if the owner has the right to a service animal.
Dr v says
That is a service dog. I don’t think we can, as outsiders make assumptions for those very reasons. And because of that it falls on the individual not to abuse the situation. I would not question someone in your situation. But I would think these people who obviously abuse the ada law would be particularly infuriating to you, since you pay the price more than anyone else for what they do.
They are infuriating, but because some people consider me to be on the other side of the line, I don’t KNOW where we can draw the line, and I generally don’t feel comfortable doing it. Unless you hear someone say “Yeah that’ll be fun, I can take my dog everywhere” or something admitting they’re obtaining the urine – how can you tell?
As long as the animal is clean, well-trained and appropriately behaved, I believe in erring on the side of caution. I’ve been given too much harrassment for my invisible disability to feel justified or able to judge if someone else has a disability or not.
I hate to see people discredit little dogs for service work. I knew a very nice lady who had a maltese service trained because she was deaf, the dog was a big help and easier for the elderly lady to take care of.
Dr v says
And to add, most of the “fakers” I have seen have pets who do not behave well in public. That should be an absolute mandate.
From what I gather, SDA dogs(seizure detection animal) are considered service dogs if they pass the same testing required of professionally trained service dogs. I was looking into this because my father is epileptic and they had a dog that detected seizures. However after working with the dog I didn’t feel he would be suitable to go into any situation, so I told my dad to just keep him close by at home and at pet friendly places. While I’m sure he could have gotten a note from his neurologist and the dog did have a CGC, he chose to agree that this dog was not suited to the life a service dogs leads. I wish more people understood the discipline involved in having a service dog.
Matthew Stoloff says
I enjoyed reading your personal perspectives. Your post clearly illuminates some of the problems with the service animal provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is, however, important to note two important things that were not addressed in this post: (1) businesses and shop owners have the right to ask what, specifically, the service animal has been trained to do and (2) businesses and shop owners have the right to remove badly behaved “service animals” from the premises. That is not in the ADA, but in the federal regulations. (A summary can be found here: http://www.ada.gov/svcanimb.htm)
So, your argument about businesses being “forced to allow the pet into an establishment where it misbehaves, makes a scene, [and] defecates on the floor” is not quite correct. If the service animal poses a threat or otherwise misbehaves, businesses and shop owners may take appropriate action.
That veterinarians give clients a fee discount for services rendered to service animals is extremely generous. However, if you don’t believe that the client’s animal is a service animal, there’s no obligation to give a fee discount.
I have written extensively on service animals on my blog. You may be particularly interested in “Badly Behaved ‘Service Animals'” and “Should We Rethink the Concept of Service Animals?” I also recommend reading Joe Eskenazi’s “Service Animals with a Snarl” (San Francisco Weekly) and Rebecca Skloot’s “Creature Comforts” (New York Times). You can either google these articles or find the links on my blog.
Thanks again for your post.
Dr. V says
Thank you for your thoughtful response and for the links!
I agree with you about the ridiculous abuses, but even the requirement that the dog be trained to perform specific tasks, etc. can be problematic. I just ran across this article that I think you’ll find interesting: http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/who_let_the_dogs_in/
I completely agree with you!!! 100%. Being disabled myself of course I would like to take Cholah, (my dog) with me. But I have to be honest I know her well, and while she is a little darling when she wants to be; the flip side of her is ugly. She is a mini Bull Terrier, with all the attitude of her larger counterpart. My husband who is also disabled wants to have her declared a service animal. After many heated discussions on the subject, I told him he could do so, but only after she has gone through rigorous training at his expense. He is finding out just how expensive that can be, and I am hoping it will change his mind all together!