Service Dog – Or Not?

As Submitted to Northern Virginia Today, since I do not get paid for my writing, I am able to share pieces with you and even expand past my 600 word limit.

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Service dogs are trained to perform tasks for a specific human handler.  They may come in a variety of breeds, even crossbreds and a wide range of sizes depending in the task the handler needs performed.  A hearing assistance dog or seizure alert dog may not need to be as large where a dog needed to assist with balance, guiding or assisting a handler with retrieving items and mobility would be have to be larger.  Service dogs are not considered pets.  Additionally, they are also trained to behave calmly and appropriately in a variety of environmental situations. This means the dogs are not:  growling, baring teeth, drooling excessively, begging for or stealing food, snapping at humans or other animals, behaving fearfully, urinating or defecating inappropriately, pulling on leash, lunging or jumping, licking food in grocery stores, barking at things, etc.    Sadly there are many groups that will claim to train your pet dog to be a service animal or who have their own dogs they will train for you but the dogs are poorly prepared to be even adequate service dogs.   To add insult to injury, there are many people making fraudulent claims so their pets can accompany them in places a pet dog would otherwise not be allowed.   They buy jackets, harnesses and patches to further “legitimize” the lie and there are companies, which for a fee, will provide “certification” for your pet to be called a service dog.  Let’s look at two categories and the differences.

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT/THERAPY DOGS:  Provides emotional support to the human.  The dog may have passed a certification test like Therapy Dogs International but this is not the same as a dog trained to assist a specific handler with a specific condition.  Even if your doctor recommended you get a pet to help with stress, anxiety or loneliness, this does NOT make the dog a service dog.  These dogs have no public access rights into places service dogs are allowed.

SERVICE DOGS: From the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Disabilities may range from physical to psychiatric. Psychiatric Service Dogs are specially trained to assist the handler with symptoms of the disability.  The key words are specially trained. With a few exceptions, Service Dogs with their handlers are permitted in areas a general pet would not be allowed. Contrary to popular belief, Service Dogs are NOT permitted everywhere.  (See URL below).

Here are some videos covering the growing problems of faked service dogs for your perusal before you read the rest of this blog entry.

Though laws are written to protect service dog handlers, there are provisions to protect business owners from poorly behaving service dogs: even if the dog is truly a dog trained to perform specific tasks for the individual handler   Therefore if you are faking a service dog or have one that is from a school mass producing poorly trained service dogs and your dog misbehaves, a business owner can legally have the animal removed.  Not only that, every time a dog owner lies about a pet being a service dog – especially if that pet behaves poorly – it give a negative light to those who legitimately work with a service dog.  Google “Fake Service Dogs” to uncover many articles about the problems fake service dogs create.

Here is the catch – it is too easy to get away with a lie because business owners can only ask two questions: “Is this a service dog?” and “What is the dog trained to do?”  Therefore if someone says “Yes this is a service dog and he helps me with __________,” the business owner can not ask anything further.

Finally, if you are caught faking a service dog, under the ADA it is a federal crime – though sadly because of the previous paragraph, it is very hard to prove a service dog is being faked and therefore hard to legally enforce this law.  This is why it is very very important NOT to tell people your dog is a service dog just so he can gain access to every place you go because you cannot bear to leave him home.  If your dog has behavioral concerns such as separation anxiety and this is the reason you choose to lie about him being a service dog, instead, seek a good trainer.

For a good breakdown of various service dogs, emotional support dogs and therapy dog regulations, please visit: http://www.therapydoginfo.net/servicedogs.html

For FAQ’s on where service dogs are and are not permitted: http://servicedogcentral.org/content/faq/63

For more information on service dogs and business owners’ rights: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

http://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm

Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.

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