Ten days ago I wrote a blog post that I intended as an explanation, meant for my dog training clients, about the difference among Emotional Support Animals, Therapy Dogs, and Service Dogs*.
As a dog trainer, I find myself explaining these designations almost on a daily basis. No, I tell my clients, neither Therapy Dogs nor Emotional Support Animals can go into restaurants, and there is no Service Dog test your puppy can take. Service Dogs, I explain, are to be used by people with disabilities, and an embroidered vest does not a Service Dog make. This is usually a newsflash. A lot of them have never heard of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
A couple friends read what I wrote and suggested that I weave in my personal experiences. So I did. And then I crafted a headline which, as a former New York Post reporter, I knew would get attention: “Me and My Fake Service Dog.”
Six hours later I’d received so many negative responses — some of them threatening—that I took down the post. I hadn’t realized how incendiary my words were (the title especially) and apparently hadn’t clearly expressed how I feel, which is great respect for true Service Dogs. I am sorry what I wrote underplayed the daily struggle that too many real Service Dog owners face.
I am a huge believer in the power of good dog training, and am thrilled whenever I learn about the amazing ways in which Service Dogs help people with disabilities. The post was not meant to be about true Service Dogs and their trainers–I only hope to aspire to their level of training expertise. I wish there were more trainers doing this kind of work, which I think could only be aided by a wider understanding of Service Dog work. I also wish there were more protection for Service Dogs, and fewer obstacles for their owners. I wasn’t aiming to pen a guide to skirting the law (although I now see how it could’ve been read as such). Rather, I was trying to use my experiences to show how the laws’ gray areas seem to be too exploitable.
I was attempting, and clearly failed, to convey that if it were easier for your average dog owner to have their (well-behaved) dogs in more places, people would be less likely to abuse laws, either willfully or because they don’t have a clear understanding of the designations (Service Dog/Therapy Dog/Emotional Support Animal) or the potential negative consequences of their actions. (The idea that damage is done by the poorly-behaved segment of charlatan Service Dogs is a sentiment echoed recently by Stanley Coren in Psychology Today; but is damage therefore caused by well-behaved dogs, service dog or not, who are rejected in public places thanks to the many poorly-behaved segment of all dogs, be they a fake “service” dog or not?).
The problem of phony Service Dogs might be particularly rampant here in New York City, where using public transportation with a dog can be tricky. People use the fake Service Dog title to try to get around co-op boards, or to justify bringing their dogs to work so the dog doesn’t have to spend twelve hours alone in an apartment. Further confusing the issue is that many people can get their dog certified as a legitimate “Emotional Support Animal,” with a letter from a therapist. As an “ESA,” they can legitimately bring their dog onto a plane, but some people mistakenly think it allows much broader access. Whether or not they understand the difference between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (see below for a full breakdown of each title), then why would the dog be a problem in Starbucks.
Another reason why I think this is an issue pertinent to New Yorkers is that we generally don’t have cars; cars make it a little easier to go places with a dog, both because you don’t have to deal with public transportation and because most people can run errands with a dog and leave in the car for a minute. Leaving them briefly in the car may produce the overall benefit of getting to spend a bit more time with your dog during the day. But in a city, someone taking their dog on a walk might have to choose to bring the dog into a store, or to tie him up outside, which is very rarely a safe option. If they choose the former, it’s probably because people rationalize it is a victimless crime and, as they see it, the benefit to their dog is worth the chance that they’ll be called out for breaking the law. All the time I watch my clients make this kind of choice, coming down on the side of “hiding” their dog in a bag while they duck in. They have to make a choice between doing something potentially risky and scary for the dog, and taking a calculated risk where the worst consequence is a tiff with the postal worker (and that could happen anyway!) Of course, the best solution is to just leave the dog at home! But, for the benefit of the dog and/or themselves, many busy people opt to take their chance and risk the consequences of bringing a dog around with them places. This might be because the dog has separation anxiety, but it might also just be they can fit some extra time with their dog into their busy day.
As I wrote, I was this person. Not constantly, as so many people inferred from what I wrote. I will never do it again, but I have occasionally claimed my Yorkiepoo is a Service Dog. I’ve mostly done this so he can sit under the chair at an outdoor restaurant near my apartment, rather than be tied to the outer part of the partition. It’s a narrow sidewalk so he ends up in the middle of the sidewalk, which I imagine annoys passersby. (A bill, currently being considered by the Governor, might soon make it possible for people to have their dogs next to them in outdoor seating areas of restaurants). I’m not proud that I have done this — I am particularly not proud of the one time I took it all to an embarrassing extreme: I went so far as to have a heated argument with a cabby who refused to take me and my dog, who was in a bag. In a burst of frustration, I told him he was a Service Dog. He insisted only Labs could be Service Dogs, and they were only for blind people. He didn’t know what the Americans with Disabilities Act was. I argued the point, but quickly realized I’d backed myself into a really yucky corner: I was standing up for the rights of real people with disabilities, but I was an able-bodied person, and I was doing it for my own benefit. Although was I? It would’ve easier to hail another cab! The cops came and told the cabby that the law said he couldn’t refuse a Service Dog.
I had dipped my toe into morally muddy waters, and it didn’t feel good–well, I guess it felt good knowing that the cabby would probably never again deny a person with a real (non-visible) disability and a small-breed Service Dog dog. But lying was a terrible way to have taught that lesson. It made me feel greater empathy for people with disabilities who face discrimination, frustrated about people’s ignorance of the ADA, embarrassed about my transgression, and generally annoyed that it can be hard to get around New York with a dog–for all dog owners, and for people with disabilities especially.
My days of falsely labeling my dog as Service Dog are behind me, but others will continue taking advantage of loopholes, often with badly-behaved pets. This is an insult to real Service Dogs. But the lies are hard to parse, since there is no overarching certifying/regulating bureau that issues proof that a Service Dog has received training to do a task, or that someone is a person with disabilities.(When fakers proffer Internet-purchased vests or ID cards, I imagine it probably makes it harder for real Service Dog owners, who know that demanding any kind of proof of a Service Dog designation’s is unnecessary and illegal). There is also no licensing for dog trainers. What’s more, a person who legitimately has a disability might gain access to No Dogs places with a dog that isn’t adequately trained—or trained at all. But it also gets murky since the ADA says (and I think rightfully so) that a Service Dog owner should not have to demonstrate the dog’s task training.
I very much agree with the intention of the law, that people with disabilities should not have to disclose anything about their disability in order to gain access with a Service Dog. In fact, I don’t think they should have to say they’re disabled at all. Why can’t they keep that private if they want to? In the piece I wrote, I referred to people having to use their “disability” as a “badge” in order to justify having their dog in public. I meant this not as in “I wish I could wear that badge!” Rather, I was trying to say that it’s a shame the law requires people with disabilities to have to label themselves as such to justify their dog’s presence. Does someone have to prove they can’t use stairs in order to justify using a ramp? If the focus of the laws were on a dog’s good training rather than on an owner’s disability, I think we’d see better behaved dogs in public, more anonymity for people with disabilities (should they want it), and fewer liars overall. The feedback I have received suggests this is a radical and unpopular point of view. However, it is not one that stems from me being malicious, proud or judgmental, and I regret that is how my words were received.
I wholeheartedly apologize to everyone I offended, and hope that witnessing the unbridled hate that has come my way because I admitted to taking advantage of the law will only deter others from attempting to do the same. I also hope that the fact that this has caused such a heated debate might be the start of some more serious conversations about educating people about Service Dogs and ensuring the system is used correctly.
*For those who are still unclear, in brief:
-An Emotional Support Animal may go on most flights and, under the Fair Housing Act, may be allowed in some housing that otherwise restricts pets. Beyond this, an Emotional Support Animal has no special access to public places. Animals other than dogs may be Emotional Support Animals. To get the label of Emotional Support Animal, a doctor or therapist must write a letter saying the owner needs the animal; they generally site a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Someone with a DSM diagnosis may also have a psychiatric Service Dog if the dog has been trained to do a task to aid them in leading a more normal life.)
-A Therapy Dog is licensed through one or more of the various private organizations throughout the country that partner with hospitals, schools, etc. Outside of the place where the organization arranges for the dog to work, a Therapy Dog has no special access to public places.
-A Service Dog may be used by people with disabilities (physical or mental), and the dog’s handler is not required to have them in a vest or show a card or present proof of either the dog’s training or their own disability. The dog should be trained to perform a specific task or tasks that help the owner live more functionally. They are allowed in all public places. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only two questions may legally be posed to a dog owner who has a Service Dog: “Is the dog a Service Animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” In NYC, you can get a Service Dog tag when you apply for a dog license, if you have a note from a dog trainer saying that the dog has had special task training to help you live a more normal life. But the tag is not required, and a Service Animal cannot be discriminated against if they don’t have one.
(Image via PetAdviser.com)