Last year, my search for temporary housing posed quite a challenge, given my meager budget, family of five, and Cocker Spaniel in tow. Moving day loomed and the leads were fading. The panic I felt daily prompted our real estate agent to suggest we classify the family dog as a service animal. The implication being that once he was a service dog, more housing options would emerge.
I was desperately seeking housing, but lie about my dog’s background? It riled me. The agent’s outlook was “Who cares if the ruse is a white lie?” But nothing would make my principled, law-abiding self budge on the fudging. Thankfully, I found an accommodating landlord who appreciated our lovely Fenway just as he was. However, the dodgy real estate agent had planted a very large seed.
I began to notice just how many people lead service dogs into places where access is normally prohibited to animals. People seemed so at ease to pass off their pets as service dogs. Some, of course, must have been legitimate, but intuition suggested many more were not. Lap dogs in restaurants, dogs in the Safeway aisles, family pooches on the sidelines while little Sally played soccer — all these interlopers grated against my inveterate, rule-following self. This is just wrong. When signs say “No Dogs Allowed,” I honor that and leave sweet Fenway forlorn at home.
So who are the genuine service animals around us? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) revised its regulations nearly two years ago and effectively tightened a gargantuan loophole in the definition of a service animal. As of March 2011, “only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA,” and the dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
So hit the road, you ferrets, bunnies, kitties, pigs, rats, and snakes. Your services are no longer needed. The follow-up punch was that dogs whose sole function is to provide “emotional support, well-being, comfort, and companionship” are no longer recognized by the ADA as service dogs (“So, Fenway, you’re out of here, too!”). The change defined the dog’s role for helping disabled persons. To be a legal service dog, a dog must be trained to do something specific that mitigates the user’s disability.
Service dogs are trained to complete or help with an endless array of work and tasks. The most common ones we recognize are guide dogs, which help the sight impaired move about and perform various tasks. For the hearing impaired, dogs alert their handlers to the presence of people, sounds, or danger. Not only are service dogs trained to protect their handlers, they can rescue them, too, by pulling a wheelchair, alerting people to assist during seizures or emergencies, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, etc. They can retrieve medications or a telephone and provide physical support or assistance to those with impaired mobility. PTSD sufferers find relief from their anxieties and improve their sleep after working with a service animal. The trained behaviors are too numerous to list, but the ADA requires that the trained behavior mitigate the person’s disability.
Aerial Gilbert, the outreach manager at Guide Dogs for the Blind, welcomes the new distinction, but realizes bogus service animals are prevalent. While the amended definition clarifies the service dog’s role, an employee or owner suspecting a dog’s legitimacy is allowed to ask only two questions: 1) “Is the dog required because of a disability?” and 2) “What work or task has the dog been trained to execute, as related to this disability?” Staff members can also ask service dogs to leave the premises if the animal is not clean, is barking, or is interfering with others. Illegitimate service animals give the authentic ones a bad rap. Badly behaved wannabe service dogs negatively affect subsequent dogs and their handlers, who have a real and genuine need for access.
Of course, people who bend the rules rarely stop to think who exactly is affected by their actions. Lauren Lambert, who handles her son’s service dog, says, “People don’t understand service dogs. And for all the bad people who want to fake it, just so their dog can fly in the cabin, there are so many people who really, truly need their service dog. The liars make it hard on the legitimate need.”
Lauren’s son Max has Down syndrome and is eligible for a service dog, even though it’s not critical he have one. She is very careful not to abuse the privilege, and doesn’t take Apollo everywhere. Apollo serves her son very well and helped significantly with his socialization and speech therapy during the initial years together. She is profoundly grateful for the benefits Apollo brings to both her and her son.
“Max works so hard in so many ways … when I see a way to get him a small break, I do it. Having a service dog means if we’re out on a walk and we want to stop to eat or go down to the beach, we can. And the fact remains that Max has a diagnosis. He’s not faking.” Their need is genuine, and Apollo provides Max with much emotional support, that ambiguous, nebulous entity which people cite to justify their deception and bring their dogs here, there, and everywhere.
Well-meaning individuals often tell Lauren and Max how they intend to certify their own dogs soon. This is usually after inquiring where Lauren purchased Apollo’s vest. The service dog patch, jacket, harness, and accessories can be easily bought online. At my local Humane Society, a determined poser can get Fido classified easily, because staff can only ask you what task your dog is trained to do. After answering, you sign an affidavit declaring you have presented the facts truthfully.
I’ve never forgotten how cavalier the real estate broker was about my getting approval. It is so wrong. I won’t even start how irritated I get with people abusing disabled parking …