By Marianne McKiernan, author of Let the Dogs Speak!
We are a nation of pet lovers. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2015 65% of U.S. households owned a pet, and we spent over $60 billion on pet care. In particular, 54 million households owned upwards of 77 million dogs. Now, most of those dogs are happily hanging out in the yard, snoozing on the sofa, romping at the dog park or keeping a wary eye on the cookie jar. A disturbing trend among some dog owners, however, is to feel that Fluffy is somehow unfulfilled in canine pursuits at home, and must accompany her human on all excursions, including the grocery, the mall, the movie theater, a restaurant, and even an airplane.
“I need Fluffy,” the owner explains. “She’s my (fill in the blank) emotional support dog/service dog/therapy dog. And look, I bought a vest online so they have to let her be with me.”
GRRR. My hackles rise, my redheaded temper flares. Allow me to explain why.
First, a little background. I am a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (cci.org), the nation’s oldest service dog organization. Along with my husband, I am currently raising Dubarry, my 11th puppy. Puppy raisers receive the pups at 8 weeks and keep them for 15-18 months. During that time we teach the pups around 30 basic commands and socialize them, gradually introducing them to pubic settings. When the puppies are around 18 months old we return them to our regional training center (there are six nationwide) for advanced training with professional trainers for another 6-9 months. If the dog has “the right stuff” it is matched with a person with a disability (other than blindness – guide dogs are a different type of assistance dog). One of the things I admire about CCI is that only the dogs who love to work graduate. Even if a dog is magnificently trained, if it is unhappy as a working dog, the trainers will release it from the program. This is one reason why only 35-40% of the pups in training go on to graduate. A stressed, unhappy dog is not a safe partner, and the safety of the graduate team is always CCI’s top priority.
An assistance dog has public access because of the person it is assisting. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is legally defined as a dog (or a miniature horse, but we’re sticking with dogs here) that has been individually trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability, such as guiding, warning of an impending drop in blood sugar, turning on/off lights, retrieving dropped items, opening/closing doors, alerting to sounds, etc. The tasks the dog performs must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Someone who has bought a vest, and so-called “credentials” (under the ADA there is no such thing as credentials or a service dog registry) off the internet for the purpose of taking a pet to public places is presenting himself as disabled. Some states have passed laws making it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a service dog.
Emotional support animals (ESA) may be used to relieve stress or help with depression and anxiety, but they have not been trained to perform tasks to assist persons with disabilities. ESAs are not considered service animals under the ADA and do not have public access rights. However, ESAs are allowed in apartments under the Fair Housing Act, and the landlord may request documentation. Some airlines will allow a passenger to fly with an ESA and may ask for documentation. “Examples of documentation that may be requested by the airline: Current documentation (not more than one year old) on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional stating (1) the passenger has a mental health-related disability listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV); (2) having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment; (3) the individual providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and (4) the date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.” (https://adata.org/publication/service-animals-booklet)
But why is it such a big deal, you ask. Why can’t Fluffy go to the store or the restaurant or on the airplane? She’s really good and she loves going with me.
First of all, Fluffy may not want to go. Poor Fluffy, who would rather be at home on your comfy bed, is possibly terrified out of her mind, shaking and whimpering. What you think is an excited, happy dog may in fact be a highly stressed, anxious dog. It takes puppy raisers over a year of training with our puppies to work up to busy, distracting environments such as grocery stores, restaurants and airports. Our dogs have to learn to be calm, quiet and exceptionally well-mannered, no matter what is going on around them. Something tasty on the floor? Leave it. Another dog in the area? Ignore it. People making kissy noises at the puppy? Sit and wait for permission to be petted. Weird noises, long security lines, TSA agents with gloves handing the puppy? Stay calm, wait for the next command. No barking, no whining, no lunging, no picking fights with other dogs, no sitting on chairs, tables, grocery carts or laps, no chewing, no hoovering, no accidents, no shedding — oh, wait. We can’t teach them not to shed. But we can teach them everything else. A puppy raiser’s favorite compliment is “I didn’t even know you had a dog!” Service dogs are meant to be unobtrusive as they quietly do their jobs.
((And as a side note, let me tell you about flying with a dog. Some airlines kindly allow puppy raisers to fly with their pups in the cabin. This is important because I do not want my dog’s first flight to be with his new partner. Flying is stressful, with all the hullabaloo at the airport, elevators, different surfaces to walk on, trains and shuttles, rolling suitcases, crying babies, security lines, etc. As many times as I’ve flown with well-trained pups over the last 15 years, I’m always a little uneasy. Therefore I want my pups to have at least a couple of flights under their collars before they graduate (if they graduate!) so that their partner has confidence that the dog can handle it. Not only do we have to navigate the airport, but once we board the plane my pup is expected to curl up in the small bulkhead space or under the seat in front of me, and stay there for the duration of the flight. Not every dog is going to be happy about doing that. Every pup I’ve flown with has given me a look that clearly says “You have got to be kidding!” when I give him the command to curl up in the small space under the seat. But they sigh, and they do it. I can’t imagine putting an untrained dog through the stress of flying, much less expecting it to behave perfectly.))
Second, fake service dogs jeopardize real working dogs and their partners. I’ve heard so many stories from graduates about their dogs being attacked by other “service dogs” or being asked to leave a store because the last “service dog” pooped all over the floor, or having to explain to the restaurant manager that yes, this is a real service dog, and no, he will not bother the other diners, steal food or climb on the table. Every time a fake service dog causes a problem, it complicates and compromises access for real service dog teams. Business owners and the public begin to look at all dogs in public settings as nuisances. Someone with a disability just wants to go about their life; questioning and/or endangering their legitimate service dog’s right to accompany and assist them should not be part of the daily routine.
Real service dogs help their partners live independent lives. Fake service dogs are at best a ridiculous indulgence, and at worst, a crime. Please don’t buy a vest and pretend your pet is a service dog. After all, Fluffy already has an important job: being your adored companion, protector and stealer of cookies.
Marianne McKiernan has been a volunteer puppy raiser for CCI since October, 2001. She is the author of Let the Dogs Speak! Puppies in Training Tell the Story of Canine Companions for Independence. She lives in Denver with her husband, two cats, two pet dogs and current CCI puppy, Dubarry.