Service Dogs for people with disabilities
Since I recently mentioned my disability (Ehlers Danlos) here on OCG for the first time, I wanted to do a posting on service dogs for the disabled as well. Service dogs for the disabled are woefully misunderstood by the general public and I wanted to write this as an awareness/informational aid.
What is a Service Dog? A Service dog is a specially trained dog, (usually in training for 2 years or more) that has learned tasks that help mitigate their handler’s disability. This can be things like guiding a blind individual, picking up dropped items for a mobility impaired individual, or blocking strangers from making a close approach to their handler who may be unsteady on their feet, or suffer from PTSD. To qualify for a Service Dog you must be disabled under the ADA. (Americans with Disabilities Act)
Many people hear “Service Dog” and think “Guide Dog for the blind.” But in fact, there are many types of Assistance or Service dogs, such as:
Guide dogs for the visually impaired
Mobility dogs for physical disabilities
Hearing dogs for the hearing impaired
Psychiatric service dogs for those affected by mental illnesses (For example, PTSD or Autism)
Medical alert dogs for those affected by diseases like diabetes, allergies, seizures etc
All of the above categories can be lumped together as ”Service dogs.” But for the purpose of this posting I wanted to differentiate the subcategories to show the diversity of disabilities that benefit from Service Dogs.
Service dogs can be any breed, and come in many sizes. While most people picture German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Labradors when they thing of a service dog, even a Chihuahua can be a service dog. (And in fact, hearing dogs are often smaller breed dogs.) Even breeds not typically thought of as service dogs, such as Rottweilers, Pit bulls, Doberman Pinschers, and Great Danes can make excellent and devoted service dogs. Breed is not important, health and temperament are. Service dogs must have a sound body (no hip dysplasia or other health issues) and a sound mind with no inclination towards aggression or fearfulness.
Some important points about Service Dogs and Service Dog users:
Never attempt to pet, feed, or distract any Service dog (called SD from here on out) unless the owner has specifically invited you to.
Do not allow your children to run up to, or make noises at a SD. Not only is this distracting for the dog, but it can be upsetting for the person as well.
Do not make noises, call the dog, or make a big deal about a SD. Remember the SD user is just trying to live as normal a life as possible. A SD is a medical device, not a pet. You would not try to call attention to a person’s wheelchair (I hope!) so don’t call attention to a SD either. A SD is medical equipment, just the same as a wheelchair, a cane, an oxygen tank, etc. Just because a SD is a living piece of medical equipment, that doesn’t change the rules of etiquette.
Talk to the PERSON not the dog.
Do not be offended if the SD user doesn’t want to talk about the dog, or doesn’t allow you to pet the dog. Again, the SD user is just trying to live as normal a life as possible and may not want, or have time to discuss the dog.
Do not ask the SD user what their disability is. That is private. Some disabled individuals may not mind, but others may be offended by intrusive questions. Some people feel entitled to ask questions like this, but ask yourself if you would be ok with strangers demanding to know your medical history, or weight, or pants size? It’s a very personal thing. Also, some SD users have mental disorders like PTSD, which could become triggered if approached by strangers asking intrusive questions.
If you have a question for the SD user, just ask politely “Would you mind if I asked a question about your dog?” If the answer is yes, go ahead. If the answer is no, accept that gracefully, say thanks and move on. Remember, a SD attracts a lot of interested people, and the SD user has a life and a schedule and a family at home too. They don’t always have time to stop and answer questions every time someone wants to ask. They also may not feel well due to their disability, and they may be trying to hurry home and rest, or take their medications.
Service dog users face challenges everyday. Not only do they deal with whatever symptoms they have from their disability, but they also must deal with public scrutiny, under-educated business owners, and their employees. Many people don’t know what the law says in regards to SDs. The ADA or “Americans with Disabilities Act” is the primary governing law when it comes to SDs. (See a brief of the ADA on SDs here: http://www.ada.gov/svcanimb.htm) Many states have their own laws in regard to SDs, but when those laws conflict with the ADA, the law that gives the SD user the greater protection/freedom is the law that prevails. (There are other governing laws besides the ADA as well, such as the Rehab act for Federal buildings, ACAA (Airline Carries Access Act) for airlines, FHA/HUD (Fair Housing Act) for apartments/rental homes, IDEA (Individuals w/Disabilities Education Act) for schools.)
Service dog users can bring their SD into pretty much any establishment the public is allowed in to. This includes restaurants, hospitals, hotels, shopping centers, movie theaters, libraries etc. A SD user cannot be excluded due to claims of allergies either. If an individual with an allergy (or fear of dogs) must share a space with a SD user, both individuals must be accommodated. (For example, if a SD user and a person allergic to dogs must attend the same class in school.) It is also illegal to segregate a SD user from the other patrons of a business.
Despite the protective laws in place, many SD users face discrimination when they are out and about. Recently, a SD user named Martha had this experience:
Harley waiting patiently at a restaurant
On Sept 6, we were staying at LaQuinta due to Tropical Storm Lee. It was our last morning there and I went to get breakfast before getting ready to pack up and attempt to head home. I walked into the breakfast room and the manager told me no dogs were allowed in the breakfast area. I replied that he (Harley) was a service dog. He initially asked for paperwork to prove it. I informed him that under both state and federal law, he could not ask for proof. He told me to leave, and I told him no, and continued to make my waffle. He then picked up the chairs and physically removed them so I couldn’t sit in the breakfast area. He also shut down breakfast around me.
When my waffle was done, I took it to my room and got my ADA law cards and my boyfriend. I handed the manager the law card, he read it and said he didn’t care, and handed it back. He said no dogs were allowed in the breakfast room.
So, I called corporate. The Regional Manager was nice and apologized and sent me a gift certificate for a free night. I thought it was over. I have since been contacted by other teams who have had the same problem with the same LaQuinta. So, I decided to call the hotel and see what they had to say about their policy and if it had been changed. At first, he said no dogs in the breakfast area. Then, he started back peddling when he realized who was on the phone with him. He stated that he would allow service dogs where the tables and chairs were, but not in the food area. This is still against ADA policy. I again called corporate. Only this time, the regional manager has still not returned my call yet.
Hearing stories like Martha’s just infuriates me. The gall of that man to actually shut down breakfast around her, and remove the chairs so she (a disabled person!) couldn’t sit down to eat! That manager violated the law in numerous ways. (Not to mention the laws of common decency!) First by asking for “paperwork proof” that the dog is a SD, then by attempting to throw the team out of the breakfast area and finally by trying to segregate the team from where guests would normally be eating. (Again, SD users cannot be segregated from the rest of the patrons of a business.)
Disabled individuals partnered with SDs often find that they “get their life back” sometimes to an astounding degree. SD user Jeanene, who suffers from PTSD, has this to say about her Psychiatric Service Dog, Happy:
Happy is always there, he never get’s tired of dealing with me. He never tells me to ‘grow up and get over it’, he never judges me if I just don’t feel like going out of the house. He doesn’t lose focus and let a stranger come up and grab me from behind. Every single good part of my life includes my Service dog. And he’s there for every single bad part as well. Public access challenges are bad, but the worst is when people try to take him away from me. I’ve had employees try to take the leash from me, customers try to pull him away. The worst to date was a small child who ran up and attacked Happy and when I reached out to stop him, his mother attacked us both. That incident has dramatically affected my ability to leave the house and has hurt Happy’s ability to work, since he is a little nervous around children now. “He’s just a dog”, I hear it all the time, but until someone has to have something they will never imagine how powerful that is. I’ve tried many analogies over the years, shoes… but people can go barefoot… clothes, but not wearing them won’t kill you… There is nothing I can say to a non disabled person to describe the depths of ‘just a dog’ to them, other than maybe he is my sunshine and the air I breath, without him the world would be a dark place, and I might be dead.
Jeanene brings up a great point. Service dogs aren’t some kind of “prize” you get for being disabled. Many people make comments like “Neat! I would love to be able to bring my dog everywhere I go!” While disabled folks love their SDs, and no doubt enjoy their company, a SD isn’t a “perk,” it’s a necessity. That is why the law protects SD users so stringently. Folks who try to pass their pets off as SDs are not only morally reprehensible, and breaking the law (punishable by fines and jail time in many states!), but they are making life harder for disabled individuals who are struggling enough as it is. A SD goes through years of specialized training, and must have impeccable manners and grooming. Most “Fakers” who bring their pets into stores and restaurants with them are easy to distinguish from real SDs, since they don’t have proper training and socialization, not to mention they aren’t task trained. (Service dogs must perform tasks to mitigate the handler’s disability, and the handler must be disabled under the ADA).
A search of Google or just about any other search engine reveals that access denials are not in short supply. Many businesses think that they are entitled to choose who can enter their establishment. For the most part, this is not true. If you are a public establishment, you cannot bar a SD user. (Remember, the person, not the canine has the access rights. The canine is considered “essential/durable medical equipment” just as a wheelchair, crutches etc would be.) Here are just a few examples of SD users being treated badly (and unlawfully):
Another point to mention is that the law provides for SDs that are either Program trained (Coming from places like CA= Canine Assistants CCI=Canine Companions for Independence PP=Power Paws) or Owner trained. (Trained by the disabled individual, usually with the aid of a professional trainer, though not always.)
Service dogs can learn an amazing array of commands to help their handlers, and the beauty of dogs is that they love us so much that they enjoy helping us! Many enjoy it so much that they will actively look for opportunities to help. Some SDs will learn literally hundreds of commands, even how to dial 911 on a K9 phone in the event of an emergency. For the disabled handler this can mean the difference between complete dependence on another person, or independence for themselves. Independence is an amazing gift, and can often be granted by a wagging bundle of fur and four legs, as evidenced in Carey and Chloe’s story:
Oct 21st 2008 was the day my life changed forever. I was in a serious car accident (my Toyota corolla vs a semi sized RV) that resulted in multiple medical issues including brain and spinal cord injuries and I am now a wheelchair user. On Valentines Day 2010 my life was changed again. It was the day I brought my Service Dog, Chloe Jade, home for the first time. Chloe is a chocolate lab and weighs over 85 lbs. She knows over 300 commands and helps me with all kinds of things. Some of the things Chloe helps me with include: Opening doors, picking up dropped items, loads my manual (7 lb titanium) wheelchair into the van, gets help, can call 911 and let EMS in the house and bring them to me, alerts to life threatening episodes, strips the bed, puts laundry in a laundry basket, takes full laundry basket to the laundry room, assist with loading and unloading both the washer and dryer, assist with getting dressed and undressed, retrieves named objects, retrieves specific items off of a low shelf in a store using a nose touch and retrieve method, and quite a few more.
Chloe has helped me with significantly regaining some of my independence back. Without Chloe I would have to have my family and caregivers assist me and stay with me 24 hours a day. But with Chloe’s help I can get little breaks and be home alone for short periods of time, I can go to stores in the mall without a person being with me, I can go for walks around town by myself and most importantly I can maintain some of my independence and dignity. I don’t have to be a burden on anyone and Chloe LOVES to help me. And our bond goes beyond her just helping me. Chloe has become my legs and arms and at times even my brain. She has become an extension of myself and is my best friend. I could have never imagined the life that I have with her now, she has given me so much of my life back and I love her so much.
(As an aside, that strap you see around Chloe’s nose is part of what is called a “gentle leader” or “halti” and it is not a muzzle. I’ve never used one myself, but I know they are quite popular. You can read more about GLs here: http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=9052)
My hope is that in reading this, you’ll understand a little better what SDs are really all about. These dogs make a huge difference in the lives of their handlers, and their intelligence and devotion are unparalleled. If you want to learn more about SDs, and the incredible things they can do for their handlers, here are some good resources:
Awesome YouTube video about not bothering a working dog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf6-i5C0Bwg&feature=youtu.be