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Monday, May 5, 2014

A "Service Dog"?  Give me a break!!

No more!!  No longer will I tell inquiring dog owners that, "Yes, you can call your dog a service dog and no one can challenge you about it."  It's the truth, of course, because that's what our asinine "Americans With Disabilities Act" (ADA) says, but I'm all through trying to explain it to people who have every intention of abusing it so they can take their dogs anywhere or get past "No Pets" policies with their landlords.

The bitey, noisy miniature Dachshund who lives with the man at the Senior Apartments should NOT be called a service dog. Neither should the sweet little Shih Tzu who lives with the young hearing impaired lady.  Neither should the Rhodesian Ridgeback that the owners can't control in public without a Gentle Leader head halter.  Neither should my good friend's dog who is adorable and fun, but who hikes his leg on everything.

Don't get me wrong; I desperately want all these people to have their dogs and enjoy the emotional comfort that only a dog can deliver.  But to pass them off as "service dogs" is an unintentional slap in the face of those unfortunate individuals whose dogs have been extensively trained to perform specific tasks for them that they cannot do for themselves.

Why my sudden rant?  Last week in Yakima, Wash., a pit bull "service dog" got loose (ran out the front door of the owner's house while the owner was in the back yard).  It went after a neighbor dog a block away.  The neighbor and two other people got bitten in their attempt to break it up. The whole thing ended as soon as someone grabbed the dog's collar and hauled him back (without resistance from the dog) to his owner's house.

The lead in the Yakima Herald Republic read, "A registered pit bull service dog is under quarantine after attacking three people and a dog Thursday in Yakima."  The phrase "registered pit bull service dog" is SO wrong on SO many levels that it I'd spit if my mouth weren't so dry.

A little background here:  dear old Yakima, where I resided for more than 25 years and owned a thriving dog-training business for nearly 15, decided to BAN pit bulls back in 1987. Of course the ban was stupid and ineffective for many good reasons which I should not need to explain to you, "the educated choir."  They came close to overturning it a couple times but unfortunately failed.  However, in April of this year the city council decided to exempt pit bull "service and therapy" dogs from the ban.

Under this new and enlightened ordinance, according to the Herald, "pit bulls serving as service dogs [no mention of therapy dogs] must be kept on leashes and muzzled when out in public, and confined to pens or locked enclosures when at home."  Oh yes, and their owners are supposed to go down to City Hall and "register" the dogs as service dogs.  (Hence, the "registered pit bull service dog" referred to in the Herald's story lead.) 

What????  What kind of legitimate service dog needs this type of restriction?  Mention "service dog" to most people, and they think of mild-mannered, always steady, always reliable, always quiet Labs, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs who wear harnesses and vests, move slowly and carefully, and are scarcely even noticeable.  Personally I also think of "pit bulls" (a broad-based generic term for many breeds of stocky terrier types), because I've seen them numerous time fulfilling this same role.  Pit bulls are extremely capable of being wonderful service dogs--in other words, performing physical tasks that an owner can't perform himself because of a disability, or detecting its owner's imminent seizure.  The pit bulls who are true service dogs by no means need muzzles or pens anymore than the Labs and goldens do.  Such dogs would not be "registered" as pit bulls anyway, but rather by their actual breed names, be it American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffy Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, mixed breed, or whatever.  And whatever city councilperson came up with the idea to muzzle service dogs and lock them in pens has truly revealed his or her total ignorance of the entire situation!  I'm actually embarrassed for that person.

Granted, there are "service dogs" who legitimately "serve" every day.  Some detect seizures.  Others act as "hearing aids" when the doorbell or phone rings.  (Actually, mine to do the same thing, without training.)  Some guard people with life-threatening sleep disorders.

However, the dog in Yakima "provided emotional support, calmed its disabled owner, channeled negative emotions away and provided a sense of security," according to the registration form the owner filed with the city.

Um... did anyone at the city read the ADA definition of a service dog?  For starters, "Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

Well, shucks, my dogs provide comfort and emotional support too.  That's why I have them.  The Department of Veterans Affairs also says I'm disabled (it's okay, I'll tell you, it's from undergoing four hip replacements) so I guess that means my dogs would qualify in any number of ways.  They keep me awake when I'm driving.  They comfort me when I'm sad.  They calm me when I'm having a tantrum. They sound the alarm when someone rings the doorbell. They lower my blood pressure when I stroke them.  They can carry stuff for me in backpacks.  They'll stand still and let me lean on them if I'm on the floor picking up their dog toys.  They even help with housework by Hoovering up whatever crumbs I drop in the kitchen.  I might add my dogs are better behaved than most children I know, making them far more pleasant in public places.

But none of these qualifications gives me the ethical right to call them service dogs, and especially not the part about providing comfort and channeling away my negative thoughts.  Yes, they are therapeutic.  But therapy dogs are not service dogs.

So who's to blame here for this out-of-control plethora of fake service dogs?  Is it the dog owner?  Is it the City Council?  Is it dog trainers like me who have tried to honestly answer people's countless inquiries about whether or not their dog would "pass" as a service dog?  (By the way, this is not just a Yakima problem.  If you Google "fake service dog," you'll find dozens of similar predicaments all over the country.)

Here's where I place the accountability:  the police of political correctness.  The whole ADA is designed to provide a politically correct world for disabled individuals.  Because of that, the ADA service dog law is short, vague, and open to interpretation (but only on the disabled person's side).  Why can't a hotel manager ask for a demonstration of what the working dog does?  Why can't the restaurant prohibit the dog if it's a big hairy Pyr that's going to shed in everyone's soup?  Why can't a merchant ask for documentation that the dog has been legitimately and extensively trained to do its job?  It's because it's not PC.  It's not nice to question people about their disabilities.  You might hurt their feelings or embarrass them.  It's not nice to question the legitimacy of their dogs' training because it might insult them.  It's not nice to make them sit separated from other patrons who may have allergies, because it makes them feel excluded and calls attention to them.

The current ADA service animal law is devastating, particularly to owners of legitimate service dogs.  (And don't even get me started on miniature horses, which are also now legal service animals under ADA.)  "Fake" service dogs have given real ones a black eye.  Ironically, many disabled people with true service dogs would love to see the law tightened up and would be in favor of documentation of extensive specialized training.  Of course, that opens a can of worms too, as certificates and "service dog" vests and placards can be purchased by anyone over the internet.

True confession time.  While recovering from one of my four hip surgeries, I "employed" my Greater Swiss Mountain Dog as a service dog.  According to ADA it was totally legal and legit.  He carried things for me and helped me with mobility issues.  Could I have gotten along without using him as a service dog?  Of course.  I could have worn my own backpack and used crutches a little longer. But it was cool to have my big, handsome, impeccably mannered dog accompanying me into Costco or coming to meet me in my hospital room following surgery.  And it was nice to not have to pay the pet deposit at a motel.  Now I feel guilty about it, although I did nothing wrong according to the law.  But I took advantage of a bad law, primarily for my own gratification.  And that's not right.

So don't call me anymore asking if your dog could pass as a service animal.  If he or she could, you already know it and won't have to ask anyone's opinion.

By the way, my two angelic dogs are "pit bulls" (actually American Staffordshire Terriers).  Needless to say, I have no desire to return to Yakima or any other municipality that supports breed specific bans, whether or not there are exclusions for "service dogs."  That's okay.  Everyone here who knows my dogs loves them.

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