Service Dog article in the UVU Review
Walking into class at the University this morning I noticed the cover story for the school paper had an article about animals on campus so of course I snatched it up and read it. I started to write a letter in response just pointing out a couple of things other than just the moral issues with passing your pet off as a service dog. My quick letter got pretty long so I decided to just do a blog post too. Lucky you guys, two posts in two days, and during a semester to boot! Enjoy.
As the mother of a little boy with a service dog I wanted to say that I appreciate your article and the obvious research you did on the subject. My son has quite a few “invisible” disabilities including epilepsy and autism, if you were to spot him across the hall he would look like any other child but he has some major struggles. His service dog Magpie has quite literally been a life saver for him and she is his constant companion, including when he is with mommy on campus or in the family study room of the library. She has many tasks she can perform for him and having her has changed our life.
I do want to point out another danger of those who abuse the system and not focus on the moral standards. Not only is it jeopardizing the rights of those with legitimate service dogs as well as future interactions they might have, but it can also be a safety hazard. Dogs that have not been properly trained as service animals, even the best behaved pet, can put service dogs and their owners at serious risk.
If you have your pet on campus and they never cause a problem because they never see another dog you just can’t predict how they might react when someone with a service dog walks by. Even a working dog, like my son’s that has been certified and working for two years sometimes gets excited when another dog is around in public. They are dogs after all, and not robots. These situations are rare, and usually so small others might not notice at all. Once in the two years we’ve had her she was startled by a dog in a building that lunged at her and she barked. When she starts to lose focus we have a simple command we use that she always immediately responds to and focuses back on her job. Now imagine a dog that isn’t trained becomes startled or caught off guard in a building (school or otherwise). The owner might not be keeping an eye out for situations like that and all it takes is one slip of the leash and barking lunge to trigger a huge problem.
Service dogs being attacked, or even threatened by other dogs can not only cause physical harm to the dog, or the handler, but can also cause emotional trauma that requires the dog to be retired prematurely. A dog that becomes scared in public, anxious or aggressive cannot focus on the fulfillment of the medical needs it is trained for. There is also a great financial repercussion to having to retire a service dog. My son’s service dog cost $22,000 to train, and we personally helped raise over $13,300 of that for the non-profit we got her from. In addition to the cost of the dog there was the cost associated with the two weeks in Ohio we spent being trained on handling her. Other issues also include the time that the person with the disability will now be without a service dog, which is a piece of medical equipment for them. For the pet owner the disruption to their lives might be minimal, for someone like my son the disruption would be tremendous.
It is not just the service dogs that are trained when they enter a person’s life, the handler is also trained. A doctor wouldn’t hand you an oxygen tank and say “good luck” and it’s the same with a service animal. A fantastic list of Service Dog Handler Etiquette is listed at http://people.umass.edu/ebarney/responsibilities.htm
The last thing I want to point out is how to act or what to do if you encounter a service dog in public, here are some great tips to remember as a rule of thumb:
- Speak to the handler first before talking or interacting with the dog.
- Do not aim distracting or rude noises at the dog, this has happened to us quite a bit and it not only upsets our son but it can really make Magpie lose focus.
- DO NOT TOUCH the service dog without asking first, and if you aren’t granted permission then please do not pet them anyway. Some dogs get distracted easier than others so their handlers might not ever allow touching. I’ve also heard it put this way: You wouldn’t go up and start playing with someone’s wheel chair so don’t touch my service dog. In our case it helps our son socialize with others, especially kids his own age. If someone asks to pet Magpie we have them ask him directly and if he says it is okay then go for it! If I’m trying to get through a grocery store on the other hand and maybe have kids with me and I’m rushing, OR Magpie might be having a rough day, don’t be offended if the answer is no.
- Do not EVER offer food to the service dog, even dog food.
- Do not ask personal questions about the handler’s disability. Think your questions through before you ask them. We commonly hear “What is wrong with your son?” My husband and I don’t think there is anything WRONG with our son. Sometimes we will still educate and share his story but it can be personal so think about what you are asking.
- Don’t be offended if the handler does not wish to chat about the service dog. Everyone has bad days, or can be in a rush. Please be courteous.
- Some service dogs wear a “Gentle Leader” that slips around their neck and then over their nose. No it is not a muzzle, and no it does not mean the dog is not well-trained. With Magpie we use it in areas where we know her focus might be distracted easily (on campus, Disneyland, etc) and it is just a reminder for her to pay attention and she can feel subtle tugs on the leash much easier.
- If a service dog happens to slip out of working mode and barks, growls or has a quick disturbance please remember that you should find out what happened before taking action. Our son’s dog is black and there have been times she gets stepped on when people don’t notice her. While she doesn’t bark when it happens I wouldn’t blame her if she did. The dog could also be asleep and dreaming, or maybe someone provoked it. Get facts first.
If anything ever happened to Magpie it would break Deeds heart. It has taken us two years to build a strong bond between. It has not always been easy, especially for poor little sister who just wants to play with Magpie all the time but has had to learn the difference between a pet dog (which we do have at home as well) and her brothers working dog. Please keep service dog teams safe and leave you pets at home. Having Magpie in public with the children can be quite a daunting task, especially if I am the only adult there. It takes a lot of focus from me as a mother, including extra preparations anytime we have to go anywhere. Please help me out by not having your pet imitate a service dog. If your dog misbehaves when you go out the next time we try to go somewhere as a family we may approach difficulties we weren’t expecting.