Thinking Dogs ♥ New York

Alberta and Deni trainingService dogs in New York got a great Christmas present from Governor Andrew Cuomo: official recognition as the state dog.

While some states choose a breed as the official state dog, and many states (gasp!) have no official dog, New York took a novel and wonderful approach. This article from points out that breed doesn’t matter; only education and ability.

The original legislation designated service dogs as the official state dog. The governor expanded the law to include working dogs like police K9s and search-and-rescue dogs, and the lawmakers have agreed to officially expand the definition.

Four paws up to New York legislators for recognizing the contributions of service dogs. Other working dogs are also heroic and deserving of recognition, but a tiny, possibly very cynical, part of me wishes the honor had been kept, as originally intended, for service dogs only.

Unlike this recognition, the “me too”-ism that wants to lump a whole bunch of dogs in with service dogs for special attention or privileges usually is negative, as described in this New York Times column: When Dog Owners Are Off the Leash.

Maybe my grumpiness stems from having read the two stories only moments apart.

While the writer of the Times column admits to schadenfreude at the news of a celebrity couple getting caught and penalized for smuggling their two dogs into Australia, breaking several laws, including avoiding the required quarantine — he also freely and unabashedly admits to committing similar misdeeds. Stating that “half the people” he knows do it, he relates stories of many other people smuggling dogs into no-pets venues, lying to get them on airplanes, and smuggling pets across borders. He even acknowledges having a fake letter attesting to his dog’s status as an emotional support dog, commenting that the law is so vague that it’s easy to cheat. The motivation ranges from simply wanting to avoid paying pet fees on airlines to feeling entitled to have your pet with you wherever you want. Even if that requires that you lie about having a disability and pretend that an untrained pet is a trained service dog.

While the author of the column briefly mentions that this fakery “makes life difficult for those who really need” service dogs, he seems not to care. He sounds much more irate about the high fees that airlines charge to transport small dogs, and approvingly cites a few recent changes, including posh hotels that now allow dogs and the news that Amtrak has started allowing small pets to ride on some trains.

The thing is, though, that faking it is not OK — and is not trivial. So many people are doing it that it really does interfere with legitimate working dogs’ ability to do their jobs. And their safety. I’ve seen so-called service dogs come tearing out of airport shops, snarling and dragging their people, reacting to people or working service dogs.

And, as my students who train service dogs have pointed out, allowing untrained pets into more and more public spaces might not be the best solution. As a pet owner, I love discovering new places that I can take my dogs. But as a person who understands the ins and outs of training and working with service dogs, I also understand the problem.

If pet dogs are very well trained and socialized and the owners are skilled handlers who are aware of what’s going on around them, then no harm is likely to be caused; unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Most dogs are poorly prepared for the stresses of public spaces, and many dog owners are poorly equipped to handle their dogs safely and appropriately — or they are simply oblivious. As is often the case, a good remedy is more education. Education of dog owners — and of business owners, about how to spot and deal with fakers.

Kudos to New York for recognizing and increasing awareness of the incredible work that service dogs do. Let’s hope it will help more people understand how vital service dogs are to people who truly need them — and how harmful it is to fake it.


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