Monday, July 6, 2015

Your Fake Service Dog is Ruining It for Legit Ones

This is Teddy. Services he provides include: licking sticky
fingers, assertive snuggling, and eating
rejected crusts of toast.
Fourth of July Weekend is a big thing in my hometown. Like, ridiculously big. The locals in the town which, nine months out of the year, is a small, closely-knit community brace themselves for the onslaught of tourists who really do act as if they own the place.

We locals do our shopping on Wednesday, and stock up, because going to Safeway on the holiday weekend is the stuff of crazy-making. Standing in line behind an entitled doofus who is outraged over the lack of gluten-free beer selection is never high on my list of "good times."

Unfortunately, Curlytop needed a pair of sunglasses because hers went missing or got broken or were stolen by faeries, so I had to brave the variety store.

Standing at the spinning display of kids' shades while Curlytop tried on every... single... pair (because, you know, they have to feel right, and if they smell different than the others, that's noteworthy, too), we were nearly knocked over by a dog.

A big one.

A Great Dane.

I nearly lit into the handler, but then I noticed the vest.

The dog was wearing a blue vest which read, "Service Animal." It had pockets on it, and it was filthy. I could hardly make out the words, for all the dirt and grime on the vest.

I hesitated, thinking maybe the dog was just so big, it had a hard time getting through the narrow walkways between the display racks, but then I saw the dog was literally pulling its handler along, and bounding down the aisles, stopping to sniff at every passerby and end-cap.

I hope I don't have to tell you that this is not how service dogs behave.

I know, because I have clients who train service dogs. I have a daughter in vet school who occasionally fosters and works with service dogs in training. I have spent time around many a service dog, and this dog was doing it wrong.

See, it's become pretty easy to "authenticate" a fake service dog, and people are doing it in droves. Seriously, I can go to eBay right now, and get a "service dog" vest with authentic-looking information cards with an official-looking seal, telling all about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -- for less than twenty bucks for either Teddy or Kipper. Neither of them has had any training, save for learning to tolerate Curlytop and Snugglebug dressing them up in doll clothes and costume jewelry.

To be clear, I am not talking about Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), which have a much lower standard to meet, as regards a public access test. ESAs need generally only be able to follow simple commands, behave on-leash, and not show aggression toward other animals or humans. I have friends who gain comfort and assistance from ESAs, and that is not what I'm talking about, here. (ESAs are NOT protected under federal law, by the way.)

I'm talking about service animals, which, by definition, must have accessory training beyond standard obedience courses, and must provide particular assistance to their humans. The assistance might be seizure detection, boundary protection to an autistic individual, support for the hearing- or sight-impaired, carrying of medical equipment, or any other number of support duties performed by service animals.

These animals and their owners, rightly, are protected by federal law.

Having a legitimate service animal means the owner is saying, "I have a disability, and this animal is necessary for my day-to-day functioning." Of course, federal law prohibits asking what that disability is, but but it does allow establishments to ask two things:

  • Is the dog required because of a disability? (Again, establishments cannot ask what the disability is)
  • What specific service or task is the dog trained to provide?
But, here's the rub... Businesses are often afraid to ask, because they either aren't aware of what they can ask, or they aren't informed as what to ask. Some businesses aren't even aware that they can ask the animal to leave, if it becomes disruptive or a danger or threat to the health of others. If they ask the wrong thing, or ask the dog to be removed improperly, they can get sued. Further, they have to take the answers to the two allowed questions at face value, because even legitimate service dogs don't have to be certified, by law.

And so, we have an onslaught of fake "service dogs" jumping up on people, knocking things over in stores, sniffing crotches, toileting in public venues and acting like general -- well, animals. And not well-trained ones.

How does this hurt anyone? Well, the service animal owner in this article says she's questioned more and more about the status of her seeing eye dog. This article shares the many ways fake service dogs harm business, legitimate service dog handlers, the dogs themselves, and the owners. 

In short, these fake "service dogs" are making the real ones look bad, and it's calling into question the legitimacy of much-needed companions for those with disabilities.

You may think your dog is well-behaved enough to pass a rigorous behavior test, and it may be. You may have the best-behaved dog, most well-trained dog on the planet. However, you devalue the legitimacy of disabilities suffered by real people when you fake a disability of your own.

My daughters are autistic. They may, someday, require a service dog. Currently, we are looking into how to appropriately and legally provide them with access to an ESA, which we know won't cover all the bases, but we are hoping it can help them to cope with certain high-stress situations which provide common triggers for them. I've discussed it with their therapist, and together, as a team, we are analyzing whether or not it would be appropriate for them, and how best to proceed.

When and if it does become necessary for us to seek service dog for them, I would hope that they and their service companions will not be subjected to doubt, disrespect, or denial of the legitimacy of their needs. 

There are plenty of businesses which are pet-friendly, and the list is growing. Rather than "faking it," I'm asking those of you who love your pets to please show support of those businesses in your area which have opened their doors to your pet, by shopping and enjoying those spaces with your buddy... without a "service animal" vest and fake "certification" from a sketchy website.

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