One in 5 people suffer from a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many can’t hear or see well enough to safely function on their own, can’t pick up an object, make a call in case of emergency, open or close doors. Others suffer from debilitating fears, have unexpected seizures or can not tell when their blood glucose levels drop to dangerously low levels. For millions of people in the U.S., having a disability means being trapped in a dysfunctional body, unable to live an independent and productive life. Over the years however, service dogs have gradually gained in popularity and are providing needed help to hundreds of thousands of people. But with a rise in popularity, also follow a number of unfortunate consequences. In an industry where anyone can claim to be a service dog trainer and make up their own standards, not all service dogs are equal or even suitable for service work. To make things worse, more people are now claiming their pets as service dogs, buying service dog gear online and contributing to much confusion and distrust from the public. The ones paying for the consequences are those who really need them.
I will never forget the day I heard from a nine year old girl with brittle bone disease that wanted nothing more than being able to go to the bathroom on her own. Most girls her age dream of having a new dress or a pony, but for her, any bathroom break in school required the help of an aide so she could safely transition from her wheelchair to the toilet seat without falling and breaking a bone. Most of us are fortunate enough that we don’t have to experience the constant frustration, fear and embarrassment of living with a disability. That’s where service dogs can truly make a difference. Dogs don’t judge, don’t complain and will turn ordinary ordeals, like picking up a dropped object into a fun and interactive activity. It’s even more fun for the dog if it happens 10-20 times a day! With a service dog, a person can feel empowered, take charge of his/her own life and regain confidence and a very needed sense of independence. From the dog’s perspective, being a service dog is the best thing in the world. They develop a very close bond with their human, get to go everywhere with them and are matched with someone with above average understanding of their needs.
While the majority of service dog organizations follow certain standards of training, there are trainers who, without experience in this particular field of work, see an opportunity to contribute or to simply expand their business. As a result, there can be big differences in the quality of service dogs even when professionally trained. I have stumbled across a number of people who had purchased over-priced and/or undertrained puppies. A 6 month old dog, even with great genetics, is not worth $25,000! Yet in an unregulated industry, many people in need fall for the cute pictures of dogs and don’t have the knowledge to discern between the quality trainers.
Even when the intentions are good, without previous experience in working with an established service dog organization, trainers may sell dogs that are simply not ready or suited to be service dogs. A dog with her tail tucked under as soon as she goes to the supermarket should not be placed as a service dog, even if that dog performs well in the training facility. A solid retrieve or an alert to changes in glucose levels is great, but the dog also has to be able to handle working in public places. Any shortcut would fall onto the person with disability to deal with and that person is not a professional trainer. It’s not fair to the person and it’s certainly not fair to the dog either.
Service dogs have to stay focused on their handler, should not bark or pull to investigate another person or be obtrusive in any way. They have to stoically put up with the toddler running towards them in a mall or stay quiet during an entire movie or while waiting in the doctor’s office. Most service dogs need to learn over 30-50 different commands and know how to stay calm and attentive no matter what is going on. Additionally, unlike selling a car, with service dogs there is a great deal of hand holding of the recipient before the team is truly functional on their own. The trainer must be prepared to spend days working with the person to successfully transfer the training over and routine follow up is often necessary. Even the best trained dogs can have bad days so it’s important for the person to know how to work through potential problems.
So what are the minimum criteria for a service dog?
- Service dogs should never be under 1.5 to 2 years old at the time of placement or we run the risk of problematic behaviors developing as the dogs go through adolescence.
- The dog should have the confidence to handle being out in public. A dog that is more concerned about his/her own safety will not be able to do the job.
- The dog should be friendly with people of all ages and with other dogs. As a matter of public safety, service dogs need to be very social and easy going.
- The dog should be focused and well behaved out in public. Whether in a church, a mall or a restaurant, the dog should not growl, bark or otherwise draw attention. Service dogs should lie quietly under the table or as close as possible to the handler, stay out of the way and ignore people passing by.
- The dog should walk nicely on leash, within a foot of the handler, stay focused on the handler even when going through crowds or distracting environments and should readily respond to the handler’s cues. In other words, a service dog should act like a well-trained dog, not like a pet.
- The dog should be trained specifically for tasks that mitigate their recipient’s disability. Under federal law, to legally be a service dog, the recipient must be handicapped and the dog must perform specific behaviors that will help mitigate said handicap. A dog that does not perform a particular task, may be an emotional support animal, but does not have the right to go out in public.
So when a person walks in a restaurant with a dog pulling at the end of the leash, eating crumbs of the floor and sniffing people nearby, is the dog a service dog? If the dog doesn’t act like a service dog, it probably isn’t a service dog!
A growing problem in this country, making the news on a regular basis, comes from pet dog owners passing their untrained dog off as service dogs so they can take them everywhere with them. Believe me I get it. I grew up in Europe where I was used to taking my dog to the restaurant and other public places without ever encountering a problem. So adjusting to different leash and public access regulations has been a rather frustrating experience. What’s the big deal? When we throw a vest on our pet it is not a harmless crime. We are hurting the men and women who rely on the dogs for more than just companionship. More than ever, people with disabilities are being questioned about the legitimacy of their dogs, they see the looks on peoples faces, hear the remarks from the skeptics, from those who just like every body else, hear about fake service dogs on the news.
In addition to providing needed help, service dogs often open opportunities for conversations with others and break down social barriers. It’s no longer about the disability, the conversation focuses on the wonderful dog lying so quietly at one’s feet in the waiting room. But it only takes a few to mess it up for everyone. One dog growls at customer, one dog misbehaves or lies in the middle of the way, that’s all it takes to create doubt and suspicion for all the others. I often teach our clients that whenever they go out in public, they become an advocate for all service dogs, so it’s really important to keep their dog on their best of behavior. People with disabilities are already stigmatized. And when the disability is not obvious, like for veterans with PTSD, people with autism, epilepsy or diabetes, the growing complaints about the fakes raises even more questions, creating tension and resentment from the public.
It’s hard to say how many people are contributing to this difficult problem. Enough though that legislators are considering new laws and some of the largest service dog organizations are calling for action! It is a federal offense after all. In California, the crime is punishable by $1,000 fine and six months jail time. But passing new laws will ultimately hurt those with disabilities. Recently, in an attempt to control the situation, Arizona lawmakers tried to pass new regulation that would have required service animals to be registered with the state and carry permits in public. The bill punished those who disregarded the law by taking their fake service dogs out in public. Furthermore, this bill allowed restaurant owners to exclude service animals if they pose a health code risk. But the legislators had to back down. To everyone’s surprise, dozens of people with disabilities showed up at the hearing and expressed their concerns. Over the past couple of years they have been questioned more than ever. The bill might stop a few “bad actors”, but it would also impact those with legitimate service dogs by limiting their ability to take their dogs with them.
So how can we help? As dog lovers, even if we feel the need to take our pet out in places that are restricted to dogs, we need to restrain ourselves. Breaking the laws to get what we want is not an acceptable solution. But just like we restrain ourselves from parking in the handicap spots, we also need to make sure we support the ability of men and women with legitimate service dogs to navigate in public without the unnecessary hassles.
As dog trainers if we strive to train service dogs, we need to first inform ourselves of the industry standards. Well-established organizations have put years of effort into developing a positive image of service dogs with the general public. Lets make sure we maintain those high standards and produce quality dogs for those who rely on them!
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.