Fake Service Animals Aren’t the Problem!

It seems the one issue I can’t escape from lately is that of fake service animals. My social media feeds are littered with posts about fake service dogs being caught by the authorities, pleas for legislation to counter the abuse of public access, or warnings on how to potentially spot a fake service dog. Off the Internet, I’ve overheard conversations from family, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers on the topic. The one glaring thing with all this outrage is that its entirely misplaced.

Now here me out, okay? I get it. The idea of someone parading their pet around eschewing the law is immoral, reprehensible, and arrogant. I’m sure nearly every pet owner would like nothing less than to never have to leave their companion home alone. Even when they understand the vast difference between a pet and a trained service animal, people will still lament their jealousy over my guide dog accompanying me while their pet is home. Sometimes they’ll even remark how they’re sure that same pet would be just as well behaved. Regardless of the validity of such a claim, they still aren’t afforded that right.

I am not, however, in the least bit bothered by the “fakers.” First, because the law is on my side. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” This sounds really broad and there is a reason for it. Most service animals that you’re aware of are quite visibly recognizable either by their working attire or their partner’s disability. However, there are many service animals utilized for “invisible disabilities” or those that you can’t determine just from casual observation. There are dogs trained to detect diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, for instance. Since the United States has very strict laws about medical privacy, and working with a service animal does not supersede that right, the broad definition is a necessity. Of course, in my experience, considering the exposure you receive by the very nature of working with a service animal, handlers tend to be more easygoing about answering questions about their disability.

Possibly more to the point, the second reason fake service animals don’t particular faze me is that their merely being in the public is not doing me a disservice. Sure, I don’t want them there and it can be infuriating to witness someone breaking the law without any consequences. But if they’re “faking” the job of being a service animal properly then they aren’t misrepresenting me as a handler nor are they actively interfering with my guide dog’s ability to do her job.

The law is also on my side if that fake service animal isn’t behaving because it has provisions for misbehaving service animals. And yes, sometimes service animals misbehave. It’s easy to assume this is because the animal wasn’t trained properly, but the truth is any number of reasons could be the cause of misbehavior. Service animals are not furry robots; they’re living beings who have off days, get overwhelmed, or just act out. Whatever the reason may be, a misbehaving service animal is unacceptable. Specifically, the law states “that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times” and when this is not the case “and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.”

After nearly twenty years of working with a service animal, I can say with certainty that awareness has grown exponentially about public access rights. However, more often than not while a proprietor may understand that service animals have to be allowed into their establishment they are not aware of their rights under the law. I’m of the belief that this is at least partly due to the paranoia of litigation that pervades, well, everything. Nevertheless, this is where your outrage should be focused: educating everyone about the law!

What we don’t need is more legislation to curb the supposed rampant fake service animals. Yes, there are pros and cons to a lot of potential ways to combat the abuse of the laws as they are presently written. I’m personally on the fence about many of them, but the big sticking point for me and many handlers here in the States is the issue of professional training. Presently, the law affords a handler freedom to choose between any trainer or program in order to obtain a service animal. This includes the right to train one’s own service animal. While all of my guide dogs have come from schools dedicated to training guide dogs and I personally anticipate that I will always utilize such services, every handler is different. Some relish the structure a program might offer, while others prefer the flexibility of their own training methods. Also, while there are many types of training programs, there are those who are unable to get the services they need from any of them.

In short, service animal handlers are not any more above the law than the fake ones. If you witness a handler not doing their job and/or their partner is causing a disruption in public, I urge you to call them out on it! Focus your energy on educating everyone about the law rather than wasting your time trying to defeat the very concept of those who might break it.

A Year with Nahla

I would feel guilty about the lack of posting, especially with regard to updating on Nahla, but I’m too overwhelmed by the simple fact that an entire year has gone by.

So much happened in such a short amount of time. The very day before training began, Uschi worked in harness for the very last time. And in the most bizarre twist of firsts, my father took her home with him, separating us for the first time. I’m still not sure who had a more difficult time with this.1

Nahla, doing her customary head tiltOf course, soon enough I was bombarded by my exuberant new arrival: Nahla.

For my part I always find the first day with a new guide dog simultaneously exhilarating and annoying. It’s an indescribable level of wonderful meeting your new partner for the first time, but it’s also so strange to go from a seasoned, well-behaved, and calm older dog to a mass of frenetic fur that is barely more than a puppy. Nahla was no exception. Also, she’s a whiner, which is a made only more obvious and irritating in contrast to Uschi who barely ever makes a peep outside of barking at the mail carrier.

The weeks of training went by in a blur even after Dad returned Uschi and I was officially outnumbered by the shepherds in the household. I don’t know why having double the amount of dogs equals well more than double the amount of work and resources, but let me assure you it does. Honestly, a lot of my two weeks of training was learning how to handle both of these dogs together. Chris, my Fidelco instructor, was bound and determined to leave us in a state where I could independently walk both of the girls securely. I admit I hadn’t even thought about such a thing until he mentioned it and was delighted by the idea if a bit skeptical. Uschi’s biggest issue has always been other animals, specifically dogs, and her reactions had grown progressively more alarming despite my best efforts to keep on top of it. But before we had concluded our training I was not only taking both dogs out to relieve simultaneously, I had also walked several miles with Uschi heeling beside me on my right side as Nahla guided me along.

This all wouldn’t be possible, however, if Nahla wasn’t such a solid guide dog. For one, she is absolutely unfazed by other dogs. At most she shows some awareness of them, but she doesn’t react in any significant way. Moreover as a breed, the shepherds tend to find work reinforcing and Nahla is definitely a prime example of this and is truly focused when in harness. Uschi, for her part, just seems to enjoy that she gets out still and is happy to trot along with us.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering at this point if all was so great and terrific, why the lack of posting? Aside from the usual “I’m busy and time is a thing” excuse, that is. Well, the thing of it is that stuff wasn’t all great and terrific. In fact, the first two months following training were some of the most stressful of my entire life working with guide dogs. There was always at least one dog sick in this house at any given time. Often it was both dogs. Generally, it was just Nahla. This eventually got to a breaking point where I called Fidelco in tears because here on the one hand I had this amazing new partner who was essentially perfect for me in all the ways I could imagine asking for, while on the other she was just constantly sick with this thing or another. Whereas my actually chronically ill dog was more or less fine. After Yara I had made it very clear that health issues were not acceptable and Uschi was only a concession in that her lupus initially didn’t hinder her ability to work.2 I ended the call with Fidelco very aware of our probationary status as a team, but hoping that all of these issues were just post-placement anxiety. Thing is, I’m entirely certain that was exactly the cause because it was like I flipped a switch on this dog. Literally, the next day she was all better and hasn’t had a single issue whatsoever since.

Once the dust of stress settled things just clicked into place in such a way that it’s hard to remember when I didn’t have to wrangle two shepherds. Nahla’s just inserted herself into life here in such a way that I didn’t realize we were missing a piece until she plopped herself into it. She’s a solid partner both in and out of harness. Working with her is smooth, her pace and pull are just perfect for me and I never have to cajole her into going on. If anything I wish I were ten years younger and even more active because this dog has energy to burn! At home she’s . . . well, let’s just say she’s managed to get her way a lot faster than any of my previous dogs. I could have fought her on getting on the furniture — and I was initially very determined that was a retired dog’s privilege alone — but between her very mature and calm attitude about such things and those pitiful stares of hers I caved. Yeah, I’m getting soft. As for Uschi, the two get along famously; they roughhouse when the mood strikes them, but mostly they’re pretty chill and I often find them snuggled up together, napping.

Happy anniversary, Nahla; may we have many more years to look back on and marvel about!

  1. To my credit I didn’t have accidents in the house, but I was most certainly disoriented sans a dog and guide.
  2. Despite showing signs of lupus from the day she arrived here, the erratic and debilitating symptoms didn’t manifest until a few years after her initial diagnosis. Initially it was thought she had a mild case that was easily treatable and wouldn’t affect her much at all.

Five Years!

Black and white pencil sketch of Uschi buried in the snow

There is so much I have been meaning to post about — and one thing in particular will likely happen very soon. But for now, I just wanted to acknowledge the fifth anniversary of being partnered with Uschi. Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been five years already because it has gone by incomprehensibly fast for me. And yet, even though I have fond memories of working my other girls, I feel almost as if I’ve never been without this wonderful and wacky guide dog.

Art & Stuff

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be more consistent with updating and at the risk of sounding like a broken record I made a few decisions that should help with that and I’m really excited about. Specifically, I’m going to utilize the different domains I have that are basically dormant and focus my posting. However, I also just started a new job and so presently most of my time has been spent either working or sleeping with occasional eating thrown in to keep me from keeling over unconscious. So, despite my enthusiasm to do so I’m opting not to fiddle around with websites for the time being.1

Instead, I wanted to share this wonderful drawing Dany Gonzalez did of me and the girls:

Graphic artwork of me practicing yoga with Yara, Uschi and Dolly playfully surrounding me

Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect piece of art to print and hang on my living room wall. The more I look at it the more things I notice. I really dig Dany’s style and I’m impressed by how faithfully each of the girls have been captured. But since this was a collaboration, there’s also a lot of history that’s showcased here from the girls’ reactions to me practicing yoga to Dolly stealing my harness.

  1. Except, of course, the few changes I already have made around here.

Service Dogs and Public Access

I don’t often cross-post things, but I recently replied to a Tumblr “rant” about service dogs in restaurants and I really wanted to share it here. Plus, it’s International Assistance Dog Week!

The original post, titled “A disservice to service dogs” begins:

Look, I get it. People around here love their dogs, more than children it seems. But do you know what? I do not enjoy dining where your furry friends have been joining you at the table. I mean it’s different if they’re chilling on the ground in the patio being well behaved, that’s different.

Just the other day I answered an ask that is very appropriate to this poster’s feelings about dogs in restaurants. It was about the time I got thrown out of a liquor store because, essentially, the owner didn’t want a dog in his shop despite my rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As I noted in my response on Tumblr, the personal feelings of whether or not a service dog should be in a public place are entirely irrelevant. In my original reply, I used the comparison example of having to share space on public transportation with others who perhaps don’t bathe themselves well enough. Unfortunately, I have to deal with it because they have just as much right to occupy space on a CDTA bus as I do.

The post continues:

Just the other day I was a popular San Clemente restaurant where dogs aren’t allowed, and all of a sudden I hear barking from several tables away! “That’s weird” we thought. The barking continued. We complained to the hostess. But because the dog had a “service dog” tag, they said they couldn’t do anything about it. First off, I could put a raccoon on a leash and it would be better trained than this dog. Second, what a tiny yorkie going to do for you? I  kinda get the idea of an emotional support animal but on a cool morning you could probably take your buddy out to the car if it’s acting up.

The 2010 revision of the ADA included a new definition for “service animals” and it is very clear on public access rights. Service animals are permitted wherever the public is and that includes inside restaurants. However, it is expected that the animal be under control of the handler at all times. Anyone who has ever eaten with me at a restaurant knows that my absolute favorite thing is when we get up to leave and I recall my guide dog from under the table to the surprise of staff and patrons. Why? Because that’s exactly what should happen; it proves she was doing her job the whole time and remained entirely unnoticed by everyone but me.

The service dog referenced was obviously not behaving properly and was causing a disruption to the other patrons. The hostess was incorrect in saying that the staff had to ignore the issues because it was a service dog and in fact they could and should have requested the handler leave.1

The rant continues:

Who am I kidding here; you and I both know this was no service dog. For just 79 dollars you can register any animal as a service animal and get to take your buddy anywhere you want, and those mean people who hate dogs can’t do anything about it. If you don’t want to “register” your dog, you can just buy a service dog ID on Amazon for $15.  It’s stuff like this that gives real service animals a bad name. This is what’s going to get the government to regulate service animals, making life difficult for people who really need them.  Knock it off people.

Actually, what makes it difficult for service animal handlers is misinformation about the law. There is no mandatory registration! And there is also no legal need to have an ID or other certification that your partner is in fact a service animal. Yes, that opens the door for people to waltz fake service animals through the doors of any public place, but if that dog is behaving itself like a real service animal then it’s hardly causing an issue for future handlers.

Additionally, there are many types of disabilities that are not readily apparent to the casual observer. Even as a blind person, which you might think would be terribly obvious to the public, I am constantly queried about what my guide dog does and how she specifically aids me. Likewise there are also many different tasks that service dogs perform. Perhaps this dog was trained to alert to an epileptic seizure or diabetic shock.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was a fake service dog. It’s honestly difficult to prove. And the law is fairly specific as to what is considered an acceptable line of questioning. However, that said, in my personal experience as a handler I find we’re generally pretty tolerant of being asked about our partners. If you aren’t rude or accusatory, you’ll likely have similar results.

  1. The law also stipulates that in such cases, the same goods and services should be provided in the absence of the service animal.