Service Animal Do’s and Don’ts

BFFP5

Dogs just make life better. They provide unconditional love, and companionship but some dogs do much more for their human.

You’ve seen them, right? In those cute little vests, they’re hard to mistake. Seems like everywhere you go now you see someone with their dog in places where it used to be taboo to take your pet.

  • Restaurants
  • Grocery stores
  • Malls
  • Airplanes

But what exactly is a service animal? The term is often used cavalierly by people to describe their pet when they want to bring it somewhere pets usually aren’t permitted, like in this video.

In case you’re wondering, none of those are service dogs.

The term service animal has a specific legal definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This animal must be a dog, that is specially trained to assist a human who has a disability. Examples would be:  guide dogs for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs that pull wheelchairs or manipulate objects for their human, like doorknobs, refrigerators, light switches.

This specifically excludes emotional support animals, or therapy dogs. From the ADA’s website:

“Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”

This means that if a facility is subject to the laws of the ADA, it must allow the handler/dog team access. They’re not allowed to ask what the person’s disability is, but they can ask two, very specific questions (again, from the ADA site):

1. Is the animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Although, if the answers are obvious – visually impaired person, person in a wheelchair – don’t ask.

When I first started training in the early ’90’s, the regulations were more lax. It was an open secret in the dog training/handling/show world. “Get your dog registered as a therapy dog.” They’d whisper, “Then you can take them anywhere.” Finding a hotel that accepted dogs was sometimes challenging on the show circuit. I’m not even going to go into the horror stories I heard about airline shipping back then. So handlers (who were already good at training) ran their dog through a therapy dog certification course, got their vest and certificate and -voila!- instant voucher for their dog to fly in coach with them, go into restaurants, stay in any hotel…

But… just because they had that vest didn’t mean the dog was a stellar example of training and dog manners.

I vividly remember sitting in a session at a pet conference in San Diego back then, and listening to one of the speakers absolutely blister the audience for the deplorable manners of their dogs. “And some of these are service dogs!” She spat into the microphone. Eliminating in the host hotel’s rooms was only one infraction on her very long list.

I know. Ick! Sad but true, not everyone is a responsible dog parent. And just because you put a vest on your furkid, that doesn’t make it a service animal. Sorry, it doesn’t. That makes you one of the people in the video up above. And yes, airlines, hotels, restaurants are covered by the ADA.

So lets cover the definitions. We’ve gone over service animal, but there’s also:

Emotional support animal – provides companionship and helps reduce or eliminate symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, etc. NO special training is required of an ESA. ESA’s live with their handlers.

Therapy animal – provide comfort and emotional support in situations that humans often find stressful – hospitals, long-term care facilities, disaster zones. They are brought to the people needing comfort, then go home with their handler.

Each type of animal provides an important service. I am not dissing emotional support or therapy critters. I’ve seen first-hand the good they do. If you require an ESA, it’s probably a good idea to discuss this with your healthcare provider so they can document your need, and how the animal provides support. Although it does not grant you the access that a service animal gets (sorry, restaurants, movie theaters, etc., don’t have to accommodate) it can open doors when you’re looking for housing.

If your therapy electric eel, in it’s 40-gallon tank, is the only creature that makes you feel warm and fuzzy in an otherwise bleak world, and your physician, therapist or other mental healthcare worker writes a letter detailing how Sparky helps you like no one else can, then finding housing just became a little bit easier. Under the laws of the Fair Housing Act, housing providers must accommodate and adjust their rules for you and Sparky.

Um, don’t laugh. I’ve seen people claim their snake, iguana, or tarantula was their ESA. Whatever floats your boat, I’m certainly not one to judge.

"I have nothing but love to give."
“I have nothing but love to give.”

So what’s the moral of the story here? Don’t be a jerk. Please.

There are plenty of people out there who legitimately need their service or ESA. Every person who buys a vest, or pays a bogus “registry” then drags their poorly-behaved “service dog” around is a nuisance and delegitimizes true service and ESA’s. Don’t be that person.

Because you don’t need to. Dogs are becoming more accepted in society, some restaurants allow dogs on outside patios, major hotel chains now accept pets nationwide.

In my book Dog Care and Training for the GENIUS, I cover aspects of training your dog so you can take your furkid out and about, and give resources to help you find dog-friendly establishments.

Don’t fake it. Be real. Be glad you don’t need a service or ESA, and don’t make it harder for those who do.

 

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