A word about service dogs: you probably don’t have one.
Want to drive me crazy? Just ask, “Where can I get one of those vests so I can take my dog everywhere?” This question is almost always asked by someone without a disability and followed with the explanation that “I just don’t like being alone in public” or “I want to take her with me into the store” or “He’s with me all the time anyway…everyone loves him.”
Many of us enjoy and are comforted by our dog’s continuous company. With their loyal dispositions and eagerness to participate in whatever we’re doing, dogs provide us with fun and emotional support. The notion that these naturally occurring qualities of the pet dog somehow entitle him to the appellation “service dog” is both naïve and inappropriate.
The vest-seekers never want to know how to actually train an authentic service dog. On occasion, they might inquire about “certification,” but their eyes quickly glaze over at the complexity of the task. No, no, no. Just give me the vest.
I’ve seen the service dog moniker subjected to a full spectrum of abuse: from the housewife who wants to keep a poodle in her purse while shopping, to the inebriated man belligerently insisting he and his dog be admitted to the county fair. In the latter case, not only was the man drunk, but his dog was off-leash, hiking his leg on everything and growling at passersby. His homemade “service dog” vest had been cut from an old shirt.
Service dogs perform actual, specific tasks for people with disabilities: signal dogs for the deaf, guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for those in wheelchairs, alert dogs for insulin-dependent type 1 diabetics, seizure response dogs, assistance dogs for persons with certain psychiatric disabilities, and medical alert dogs. These are not pets – they are highly trained, working partners that have been liberating people with disabilities since World War 1.
The homemade “vesters,” claiming bogus disorders while masquerading their untrained pets as service dogs are no different from those who fake a condition in order to park in handicapped zones. Bolstered by phony websites professing that any dog can be declared a service dog – hey, all you need is a doctor’s note! – they threaten to erode the access to public places legitimate service dog organizations have fought so hard to earn. http://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm
Most real service dogs have been carefully selected by professionals for their suitable temperament, health and aptitude for their necessary work. They have received intensive training, often completing a 2-year training program before being assigned to their person. It is a painstakingly sophisticated process and it’s unconscionable to think one can simply slap a T-shirt on the family dog and stride through any public place with impunity. It devalues the work of true service dogs.
Can you train your own service dog? Yes. Maybe. I respect anyone with a genuine need for a service dog who seeks to legitimately elevate their dog’s status from pet to service animal. Contact the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners http://www.iaadp.org (IAADP) for information.
The process http://www.iaadp.org/iaadp-minimum-training-standards-for-public-access.html outlined by the IAADP is extensive and time-consuming. Dogs must have a solid temperament, impeccable manners and be proficient in basic obedience. They must receive a minimum of 120 hours of schooling with 30 hours dedicated to working in public places under the supervision of a program’s qualified trainer http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/Standards/TrainersStandards.php and perform at least three identifiable physical tasks Click Here for the benefit of the disabled partner.
- Traditional Tasks performed by Guide, Hearing and Service Dogs http://www.iaadp.org/tasks.html,
- Tasks for Service Dogs for Persons with a Psychiatric Disability http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html
- The Delta Society’s Minimum Standards for Service Dogs http://www.deltasociety.org/Document.Doc?id=170
I’m not the only one plagued by the vest-seeking crowd. People with real service dogs https://anewscafe.com/2008/04/30/one-smart-dogby-darcie-gore/ are regularly tormented with “You’re so lucky, I wish I could take my dog everywhere,” “Can I pet your dog?” and of course the dreaded, “where do I get one of those vests?”
What’s behind this casual and intrusive attitude toward service dogs? Thirty years ago, the only service dogs most of us encountered were Guide Dogs http://www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer assisting the blind. We instinctively knew it might be rude or even harmful to distract a blind person with questions about his or her dog and back then, predominant service dog breeds were impressive, formidable-looking German shepherds and Labradors whose sheer size often commanded respect.
Not so anymore. With the advent of innovative organizations like Dogs for the Deaf http://www.dogsforthedeaf.org/ who evaluate and adopt shelter dogs into their training programs, the service dog field now employs all manner of breeds. It is common in public and social arenas to see “Everydogs” performing a wide range of tasks and assisting people with a much larger variety of disabilities. Hence they frequently look like the pets we have at home. Since not all disabilities are obvious, the public has developed a false sense of familiarity, even entitlement, regarding service dogs.
This new attitude is aggravating. Yes, a modern-day service dog might resemble “Benji,” but when you stop to consider his skill level, he’s no less impressive and formidable than his heroic predecessors. Although his human partner may not be blind, it is still impolite and sometimes dangerous to interfere with the pair’s routine. Those relying on service dogs for their freedom often find themselves forced to run the gauntlet of curious strangers http://mytimeoflife.blogspot.com/2009/09/warning-frustration-ahead.html every time they leave the house. As a side note, while many people with disabilities find constant overtures exhausting, the opposite may be true of “vesters,” who seem to crave the attention generated by being in public with their pets.
If you’re smitten by the sight of someone with a working service dog, offer the team a smile and keep moving. Play with your own dog and be thankful you have the luxury of enjoying her as a delightful companion.
As a dog fanatic, I’d love to see pet dogs welcome in more places throughout the community. If you agree, then take steps to change public opinion about dogs by training your own, picking up after him, teaching him the skills to be a good canine citizen http://www.akc.org/events/cgc/program.cfm and courteous neighbor. And please, don’t call him a service dog if he isn’t one.
Resources: Canine Companions for Independence – http://www.cci.org/site/c.cdKGIRNqEmG/b.3978475/k.BED8/Home.htm Delta Society http://www.deltasociety.org/Page.aspx?pid=302 Dogs4Diabetics http://www.dogs4diabetics.com/index.html Dogs for the Deaf – http://www.dogsforthedeaf.org/ Guide Dogs for the Blind www.guidedogs.com. International Association of Assistance Dog Partners – http://www.iaadp.org