The Importance of Respecting the Rights of Disabled People

Passing the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test is a worthy goal and a significant accomplishment for pet owners.  Well-socialized dogs with basic obedience training are more apt to live out their lives in loving homes, and are less likely to be rehomed or surrendered to shelters.

Passing the CGC test does not give dogs the right to go into places of public accommodation (restaurants, public transportation, stores, hospitals, etc.) where pets are not allowed. Having an AKC (American Kennel Club) Canine Good Citizen Title does not qualify a pet to be a service dog.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as a dog that has been "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." In the "The ADA Glossary of Terms" disability is defined as: a condition that causes "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities" of a disabled person. To be a service dog, the animal must perform skills or assist with tasks that mitigate some aspect of the person's disability. A complete guide to federal regulations applying to service dogs can be found at ADA Requirements.

It is imperative to understand that the ADA only grants rights to disabled people, not to dogs. The law addresses the rights of disabled people who might be blind, deaf/hard of hearing, or mobility challenged, and those who are diabetic, have seizures, a traumatic brain injury or have other disabling physical conditions. The ADA also recognizes service dogs who assist people with psychiatric diagnoses such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), autism spectrum disorders, clinical depression, and pervasive anxiety disorder, among others.

A person who pretends to be disabled or represents her pet dog as a service dog flouts the law. Many of us would like to have our pets with us as much as possible. The vast majority of pet owners find the presence of their beloved pet to be soothing. Yet, dogs whose sole purpose is to provide emotional support are not service dogs as defined by the ADA regulations. They lack the task based specialized training the law requires. Taking pets into off-limits places of public accommodation jeopardizes the rights of disabled people who actually need the help of a fully trained service dog.

How do dogs become service dogs?

Becoming a service dog is an on-going and highly selective process. Approximately fifty percent of all dogs bred, socialized, selected and trained by owners or agencies to become service dogs either fail to complete training or must retire after a short career. Physical and behavioral reactions to cumulative stress are the most common reasons why dogs fail to become service dogs or must retire prematurely. Minimum standards of training and behavior expected of a service dog can be found at the Assisted Dog Unlimited website.

Selecting an appropriate candidate for service dog training is the single most important element of preparing a dog for a working career. Temperament evaluations are essential but offer no guarantees. They help weed out the obviously inappropriate candidates. Some dogs only demonstrate their unsuitability later in the process after much time, money and love has been invested in their apparent promise. For more information read about Temperament Evaluations for Working Dog Candidates.

Training for a service dog is highly specialized. Dogs must learn myriad skills to meet the specific needs of people with a wide range of disabilities. Training a service dog generally takes a minimum of two years. The average cost of breeding, raising and training a service dog is $20,000 to $30,000.  Such rigorous preparations go far beyond the requirements for a CGC test.

The majority of dogs are not cut out to be service dogs. Yet, some people have decided to pretend that their pets are qualified service animals. The actions of these imposters benefit no one.  Hopefully this article will help educate dog lovers -- perhaps knowing what it takes to become a service dog will stop some people from turning themselves and their dogs into imposters.

Why are imposter dogs a problem?

A rising tide of imposters is making the lives of disabled people more difficult. There are no statistics about how many imposter dogs are out in public. CGC and pet dog trainers frequently get asked: "Where can I get a vest so I can take my pet everywhere with me?" Putting service dog identification on a pet dog does not make it a service dog -- it makes the dog an imposter. Posing as a disabled person for the purpose of representing a pet as a service dog eligible for public access is unethical. In sixteen states it is even illegal. For more information about state laws pertaining to service dogs go to the Animal Legal & Historical Center.

Shop owners, restaurant staff, bus drivers, hospital personnel, etc. are allowed -- according to the ADA regulations -- to stop a person accompanied by a dog purported to be a service dog. They may ask what specific tasks the service dog has been trained to do to respond to the handler’s disability. These provisions were part of the restrictive revisions to the ADA regulations published in 2010.

Many imposters continue to take advantage of laws designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Where imposter dogs are brought into places pet dogs are not allowed, they increase the likelihood that disabled individuals will be questioned.

People with invisible disabilities (for example veterans and non veterans with traumatic brain injury or PTSD) are especially vulnerable. They are most likely to be questioned about their service dogs. They may even have their symptoms triggered or worsened by such questioning. The questioning can also cause un-due attention and humiliation.

Not only do imposters with their pet dogs increase suspicion from businesses, but also pet dogs are less likely to behave well in public. Unruly dogs, even those whose handlers are disabled -- may be asked to leave a place of public accommodation. A dog causing a disturbance such as barking, relieving himself, threatening staff or patrons, or disrupting the flow of business should be asked to leave.

Pet dogs who bark at service dogs, charge toward them, or worst -- attack them -- may cause a disabled person with a service dog to fall, feel personally threatened, or need to protect her service dog -- possibly incurring injury to herself or her dog in the melee. As a result of an attack, a service dog may become too fearful to continue working and have to be retired.

Canine Good Citizen training might prepare pets for higher levels of accomplishment. Nevertheless, CGC training alone does not qualify a dog to assist a person with a disability.

Whatever their intentions, people who wish to take their pets into places of public accommodation under the guise of service dog status must consider the legal and social consequences. Hopefully they will choose instead to respect the rights of people with disabilities.

Note

A complete guide to laws applying to service dogs can be found from Assistance Dogs International.

In 2006 Barbara Handelman published the four DVD series "Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog." The set introduces methods for training many of the complex tasks an assistance dog needs to perform to help a disabled person function both at home and in the world at large. The terms Assistance Dog and Service dog are interchangeable in common parlance. Legal language only refers to these working dogs as Service Dogs.

Today, Barbara's clicker training energies are divided between her horse EZ and her service dog, Nate.

Check out Barbara's website Woof and Word Press where you will find free resources for clicker training service dogs. There are many resources including a video journal of the first two-years of training with her service dog, Pan. On the website you will also find the complete video on "Selecting Candidates for Working Dog Careers."

Find a dog trainer near your location and take the Canine Good Citizen test for your dog.