You and I haven’t had the displeasure of meeting, but you’ve met almost all of my friends at one point or another. You may think you’ve pulled one over on everyone, but you’ve actually made governments – state or provincial – stand up and take notice of what you’ve been doing. I wish I could say that it’s nice to meet you, but then I would be lying… something you do every day by passing off your pet (even a well-behaved one) as a service dog. Maybe you know in the back of your head that your actions may affect those of us with illnesses or disabilities who use service dogs to increase our independence or alert to oncoming life-threatening situations; maybe you just want what you want. You love your dog, I get it; I love mine, too. But just in case you weren’t aware, there are some broader implications of buying a $75 vest online and getting some doctor you’ve never met to sign a piece of paper indicating you need a “service” dog. You’ve heard the general arguments, and you keep doing this, so maybe it’s time someone asked some tough questions.
Is it Even RIGHT for your Dog?
If your dog doesn’t scrounge, bark, growl, lunge, wander around unnecessarily, or display other inappropriate behavior in public, move on to the next section; I have different questions for you.
Service dogs are well-trained and welcomed into public establishments for good reasons. They go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of public access training by owners, puppy raisers, and/or professionals, who work their way up to being able to take the dogs into malls, restaurants and stores. Not all dogs that are bred, raised, and go through service dog training complete it for a variety of reasons (much of it stress or health related). Even trained service dogs have “off” days but overall are well-behaved and continuously trained to be that way even after being issued to a handler with a disability or life-threatening illness. If a service dog is uncontrollable or aggressive or ill, and no amount of retraining can fix this, handlers go through the heartbreaking process of retiring the dog. In contrast, you just want what you want – your dog in a store with you – and don’t care about the sudden stress you’re putting on your dog. Your Fluffy, nine times out of ten, is incredibly stressed by your taking him into Walmart to buy your quart of milk, dozen eggs, and a replacement toothbrush, and can act fearful or aggressive due to that stress. And don’t get me started on your allowing your dog to get out of control, display aggressive behavior, to wander away from you, or to do other things for which a child would be asked to leave had they done them. In a terrific facebook post, a friend put this better than I ever could:
… look at it from that pet dog’s perspective. He has no idea what is happening to him, very likely does not like it, does not know how to behave, and doesn’t have a handler who is listening to any of the dog cues he is sending for: “Please don’t bring me here. I don’t like this. I’m scared or mad.” That dog is clearly saying one thing, but all that human hears is: “Me. I get to do what is convenient for me. Screw my dog. Screw the civil rights of other people. Me.”
Can you Expand your Dog’s Training?
If you’ve socialized your pet appropriately in pet-approved malls, restaurant patios, and stores, you have my gratitude. Dogs are a reality that our service dogs will encounter regularly, and the better trained or behaved your dog is, the easier it is for my service dog and I to go about our business.
But if you have the previously-mentioned “service dog” vest on your pet dog and take well-behaved Brutus or Fluffy into malls and stores where dogs are generally not welcome, not only are you committing a fraud by passing as someone with a disability or illness, you are making your dog unnecessarily dependent on your companionship. You think you can’t function without him, but in reality you are making him uncomfortable with his own company. If your dog can’t be left at home for a few hours without disturbing the neighbors with her barking or destroying your couches out of boredom, this makes my point for me. Why don’t you take some of that wonderful training foundation you’ve put into place and use it to work with him on separation anxiety? You’ve gotten the socialization training down pat, so take a little bit of extra effort and make all of our lives more convenient, not just yours. I have full confidence in you!
Do You Know Your Fraud Is Coming to An End?
Not only are legitimate service dog handlers sick of what you’re doing, businesses and governments are, too. This will affect your ability to pull off this fraud for much longer, particularly as it pertains to your misbehaving Brutus or Fluffy. Many of us service dog handlers are educating businesses on what is appropriate service dog behavior, what is a legitimate service dog being under control but having a rough day, and what is flat-out unacceptable. Businesses and service providers are being advised about the questions they can ask, what behavior is acceptable, and when they can deny service. Did you know that in most jurisdictions, businesses have the right to ask that any misbehaving dog – service dog or not – leave the premises? You’ve gotten by with your mass-produced “service dog” vests and registry cards (which, by the way, currently aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on), counting on the fear of getting sued for asking you to leave your disruptive “service dog” outside or at home. But many of us handlers have your number and are contacting businesses and advising them of their rights (because, after all, they have rights, too).
What is also looking much more likely in a lot of states and provinces is a government-issued ID, which will make it much much harder, and the penalties much more expensive, to pass Brutus or Fluffy off as a service dog. And you know who’s going to have the burden of providing this legitimate piece of plastic for the asking? Someone like me, who thank you very much, is noticeable enough because of my service dog – you know, one that mitigates a disability? I hope that financial penalties for your fraud will be high, even as I don’t think it’s fair that I will likely one day have to show identifiable information to anyone who asks because you’ve chosen convenience and selfishness over my right to an autonomous and independent life.
Do you Actually want to Live My Life?
Speaking of living an autonomous and independent life, do you realize what these real service dogs actually do? They guide blind and visually impaired people safely through streets and malls and airports. They alert a deaf or hard-of-hearing handler of sounds in their environment. They pull wheelchairs and open doors and retrieve dropped objects. If their handler is going through a panic attack, it is the dog’s job to indicate that one is coming or remove the handler from the situation. If a diabetic’s blood sugar is low or an epileptic is going to have a seizure, these dogs alert them to get to a safe place or to take their medication. And I haven’t even scratched the surface. These dogs do a million and one little things that assist the independence of people with disabilities and/or with illnesses that could threaten their lives.
Have you lived a day where you hear a child ask what’s wrong with you, or how sorry someone is that you are blind or deaf or use a wheelchair? Have you been told that severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder is all in your head while you’ve struggled to leave your house and feel safe in a crowd? Do you worry about packing enough food in case your blood sugar gets too low, or have this niggling sense of dread in the back of your mind about when the next seizure could hit? Do you struggle to obtain or maintain a job because people question your ability to perform job tasks, or feel like you have to hide a part of yourself in order to keep the job you do have?
I could go on and on with these questions, but I’ve made my point. Until such point as you’ve lived these lives – whether my own or that of someone I know and care about – then you have no business pretending that you do. Until you’ve had to chew out a parent for allowing their child to make inappropriate overtures to your service dog, until you’ve had strangers abruptly grab your body or mobility aid because they “meant well,” until you’ve been told that your panic attacks or flashbacks are all in your head and to suck it up and get on with it, you do not have the right to use a dog to pretend that this is your reality. If you wouldn’t take your pet dog dressed in “service dog” gear to a job interview because you wouldn’t want the stigma of disability attached to you, then how dare you do so when it’s convenient for you? You want the perks with none of the inconveniences, fears, and complexity that go along with them.
Many people with disabilities live happy and fulfilled lives, some with service dogs and some without. For many of us, a service dog is the difference between independence and seclusion, confidence and fear, life and death. Are you still going to tell me that this little white lie – pretending you have a disability – doesn’t hurt anyone? Call me the next time someone talks to you like you’re a child, denies you an opportunity for employment, or makes you disclose the fact that you live with PTSD because you “look so normal.” If a store doesn’t want to welcome pets, that is their decision; but they can’t turn away people who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes, so they can’t turn away well-behaved service dogs accompanying people with legitimate disabilities. Unfortunately, actions like yours have caused stores and restaurants to turn us away, usually rudely and publicly. I’m sure your dog is lovely, but you have no business pretending he is what he isn’t, or you live with something you don’t. I don’t care what makes you knock off this self-centered entitled behavior – huge monetary fines, a pricked conscience, or embarrassment from being asked to leave by a well-informed employee of a no-pets-allowed establishment – but it’s time your nose stopped growing.