Who Let the Dogs Out? Service Animals Run Amok

alpaca

I need to vent for a moment about service dogs.

By this point, we’ve all seen service dogs in restaurants, airports, grocery stores, and other public establishments. These dogs often wear vests making it clear to people that this, in fact, is not any regular pet, but a certified animal used to assist an American with a disability. But I have a few problems with these animals.

Abusing the system is too easy. Anyone can register their mangy talentless pet as a service animal, faster than you can say, “Where can my alpaca sit?” ABC News conducted an investigation of the system. Their analysis was partly inspired by a woman who wanted to fly her dog around the country for the holidays but didn’t want to pay the airfare for her dog. So she lied (claimed she had panic attacks), and just this claim allowed her dog to fly next to her on the plane no fewer than six times without paying a dime. In turn, ABC reporters went to USDogRegistry.org and filed an application for a 28 lb. dog named Archie. After paying the online fee, the online organization provided a leash, a vest, a photo ID, and a certificate with Archie’s name and registration number. No doctor’s note was required. And Archie was now able to fly, dine in restaurants, and go shopping at the mall, no questions asked. And why not? With his official leash, vest, and photo ID, he looked 100% legit. They did the same thing for a rabbit named Leo and an African pygmy hedgehog named Snickers. Over the course of this investigation, these animals became very well-traveled.

The list of transgressions is a mile long. The New Yorker published a hilarious article, detailing some of the more egregious examples including a woman who brought her dog Truffles on a US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. En route to Philly, Truffles defecated in the aisle multiple times, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Kansas City because people were allegedly becoming sick and a HAZMAT team was required. In an effort to see how far she could take this, the author of the New Yorker article borrowed a friend’s 30-inch snake and successfully established it as an emotional support animal by concocting a story of how she was saved from drowning by a snake when she was a child. Next she got her hands on an alpaca and tried (again successfully) to travel with the alpaca on a public train. Then she took the alpaca to a CVS and later to an art gallery.

A distinction should be made between service animals and emotional support animals. Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act; emotional support animals are not. The ADA only allows dogs and miniature horses to serve as service animals. (Not sure how the miniature horse lobby got a voice on this issue, but there you go.) If you see any other animals being passed off as “service animals,” feel free to stop them in their tracks.

The worst part of this situation is that people who genuinely need service dogs are the ones most affected. People with legitimate service animals have complained about the rampant abuse of the system because these “fake” service animals have resulted in business owners questioning the legitimacy of actual service animals. And there have been cases of illegitimate service animals getting into fights with authentic service animals.

Let me get this out of the way: I am not anti-dog, nor am I against animals being used to assist those with disabilities. For example, seeing-eye dogs provide a very specific purpose to people who are visually impaired. These dogs are specially trained and have a set of skills that are the result of months of intense training and discipline. In fact, trained seeing-eye dogs can fetch a price (pardon the pun) of up to $50,000.

Similarly, people who use wheelchairs can use Mobility Dogs to help them open doors, pick up objects, and pull wheelchairs; and people who suffer from seizures sometimes use Medical Alert Dogs to warn them when a seizure may be coming. (This claim about dogs detecting seizures is controversial, but I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.) I have no problem with any of these service animals. These dogs are very different from the service dog next door who is unable to sit on command and shits indoors approximately 37% of the time. But in the eyes of the law, these dogs are equal and allowed equal rights, equal protection, and equal access to public spaces.

Just to be clear, if someone is visually impaired, requires the use of a wheelchair, or is at risk of having seizures, I am the first to accept his/her service dog into my home with open arms and some tasty vittles. That’s not what this post is about. This is about people who pass off their untrained dogs – with no special skills – as service animals.

Another identified problem: If you are a business owner who isn’t thrilled with the idea of an animal being in your store or restaurant, there’s virtually nothing you can do. Service dogs are not required to wear vests or collars identifying them as service animals, and it’s against the law for business owners to ask a person for proof of a disability or proof that the pet is in fact a service dog. And the only time you can ask a person with a service animal to leave your place of business is if the pet presents a health or safety risk or if the pet is “out of control.” The term “out of control” is very subjective, and if a business owner tries to remove a barking dog, he/she could be sued for discrimination under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a mental health professional, I’m not crazy about the idea of people using service animals for mental health reasons in general. While I agree that having pets is therapeutic and beneficial, service dogs do nothing to treat an underlying condition. For example, if someone relies on a dog to leave the house or engage in social outings, this may help with the initial anxiety but does nothing to address the underlying anxiety problem. I had a veteran with PTSD recently tell me that his service dog (which weighed 4 lbs.) kept him safe by alerting him of approaching danger (e.g. unknown people walking near him on a public sidewalk). In this case, the animal (by barking at everything that moved) was actually providing a disservice to the veteran by reinforcing his maladjusted belief that danger is lurking around every corner and that to stay safe, one must constantly be hypervigilant.

We can’t cure blindness, effectively stop all seizures, or give people in wheelchairs the ability to walk. Thus, service dogs are important and vital for many Americans. However, in the case of PTSD and other mental health disorders, we have a variety of effective treatments and interventions that are available. Attaching a service dog to someone’s hip merely provides a security blanket and robs them of real treatment.

In other countries, it’s very different. Service dogs, for example, must be specially trained, and they are required to demonstrate at least three specific tasks that assist their owners. There is no such requirement in the U.S. You are allowed to train your own animal (which may be limited to your dog rolling over and playing dead).

We need to adopt policies that are similar to ones used in other countries. That is, a service dog must not be used for the sole purpose of providing companionship, and all service dogs must demonstrate actual skills that assist a person with a disability. I would also argue that a person should only be allowed to have a service dog when all other interventions have been tried with unsuccessful results. Again, this is for the reason that a service dog does nothing to treat an underlying condition but merely provides a way of coping with a disability. Imagine if we had the ability to treat someone’s blindness, but we gave them a service dog instead. Tighter regulations are clearly warranted.

– Nathan

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2 Responses to “Who Let the Dogs Out? Service Animals Run Amok”

  1. Thank you Nathan. I get “service dogs” in my library. For the most part, they are attached to whiny use-the-system people who seem to gather personal points by being annoying.

  2. This is an important topic, there should be some regulations. However, service animals are still very important to those who really need them.

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