Wrong on So Many Levels …

a poster announces that service dogs are welcomeI was in St. Petersburg when the Tampa Bay Times ran this story about a “service dog” whelping a litter of puppies at the Tampa airport. Columnist Daniel Ruth’s response is spot-on. This is so, so wrong.

The initial article said that the dogs’ owner claimed both dogs (the puppies’ dad was present for the whelping) were service dogs; it also said the puppy-mom was a service dog in training. The initial article says that the owner has mobility issues; Ruth’s column mentions blood pressure. It’s impossible to know which is accurate or whether the owner meets the ADA definition of a person with a disability. It’s also impossible to tell whether either or both dogs do anything to mitigate the disability. While the reporting could be more clear, part of the problem is that the various laws covering public access and air travel with service dogs are so vague and poorly written that they are a nightmare for gatekeepers — and an engraved invitation to fakers. (I’m not saying this person was faking; I am saying it is nearly impossible to know.)

The second problem is that it’s legal in some cases for people to use two service dogs and request public access with both simultaneously. I know that people might have multiple disabilities that a dog or dogs can help with. And if you’re an owner-trainer and want to train a dozen service dogs for yourself, I don’t think any law should stop you. But I also advocate for some common sense in access laws.

I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of service dogs. Even the best dogs get spooked in airports or on planes, and I know that it’s hard enough to find and train one dog for the really difficult, demanding job of working while traveling, through an airport, and on an airplane. Expecting someone to be able to safely handle more than one dog in these circumstances, while dealing with the many hassles of travel — that’s just not reasonable. It’s not fair to other travelers or to airline staff. No one can predict what will happen. I’ve seen “service” dogs react aggressively to working dogs, kids come out of nowhere to grab the dogs in a hug, people interfering with dogs by doing everything from reaching to pet to trying with gestures and noises to distract the dog to actually enticing working dogs with food.

Add to that the exploding number of emotional support animals traveling these days — a concept that many people, including Ruth, in his column, have trouble separating from service dogs — and I’m surprised that any dog can navigate air travel without losing her cool. Expecting a person, any person, to keep tabs on multiple service dogs with all of that going on, and keep everything under control so that the traveler, dogs, and everyone else is safe? Not realistic.

Finally, the most egregious part of this story: Who boards a plane with a dog who’s that pregnant? It’s not that hard to know when a dog is due to whelp. Gestation is about 60 days. If your dog has been bred, don’t travel after about 6-7 weeks. And that doesn’t even address the bigger issue: Any professional service or guide dog trainer will tell you that a working service dog should be spayed or neutered. Regardless, a pregnant female shouldn’t be working that close to her due date. And if she is a service dog in training, as some accounts said, she shouldn’t have been allowed to fly anyhow; no law gives access to service dogs in training. (In a probably vain attempt to forestall criticism, I will state that I think that trainers should be able to fly with dogs-in-training, but that is a whole separate issue.)

A service dog partnership is not a one-way street. The dog helps the person in a way that only a dog can. The dog also provides companionship and love. In return, the person owes the dog care and respect. I don’t doubt that the owner of these dogs loves them and appreciates their service. But she did not fill her obligations as their guardian and steward and advocate, nor did she show respect for the dog when she let a working dog become pregnant and then attempted to fly with that dog so close to her due date. The person’s needs do not always come first, and in this case, the owner was selfish and irresponsible.

As a person who cares deeply about the human-canine connection while also deeply respecting the work dogs do for us, I become angry when I see or hear about any dog owner who treats her dogs that badly, whether they are service dogs or pets. (I’m not alone; the Times apparently heard from lots of others who were outraged.) While travelers who saw the puppy birth might have thought it wonderful, miraculous, cute (or gross), that this poor dog had to whelp her puppies in such awful, public conditions is outrageous.

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Don’t Fake It …

I spent much of the day prepping for two short classes I am teaching on service dog access law. I’ve done this before, but most recently, I had an entire semester to teach students about access law and other dog-related laws. We spent seven weeks on the crazy quilt of federal laws that govern public access for people who have service dogs. Paring the vast amount of information down to two one-hour presentations is tough.

I decided that the most important things that the students, future service dog trainers need to know are:

  • The ADA might be the most important law to study, but it is far from the only law that touches on people with disabilities and service dog access
  • The right to be accompanied by a service dog is far from absolute
  • Not all dogs can be or should be service dogs

Beyond that, I hope to give this group of students an overview of the applicable laws and plenty of info on where to get more in-depth information.

The biggest problem with the number of laws and variations in how and where they apply is how easy it is for people to break the law — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

What do I mean?

People often confuse service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals.

Service dogs, individually trained to assist a specific person by performing tasks that mitigate that person’s disability, are often seen in malls, restaurants, supermarkets — almost anywhere that members of the public can go. The ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, gives people with an ADA-recognized disability the right to take their service dogs into these places. But dogs that merely provide comfort or “emotional support” are not considered service dogs. Animals other than dogs (with limited exceptions for miniature horses) are not covered by the ADA.

However, people can get permission to live with an emotional support dog or other animal in housing that doesn’t allow pets. Other people get their dogs certified as “therapy dogs” and visit hospitals, schools, and other places that normally do not allow pets. What gives?

Different laws govern access to housing, air travel, Veterans Administration facilities … the laws are confusing. There is no requirement for any kind of public access test or identification. Emotional support animals that accompany people in no-pets housing or on airplanes are not required to have any training.

Many people honestly believe that they have the right to take their pet along to the coffee shop because they have a letter, a “prescription” that turns their pet into a service animal, or because they’ve passed a test given by Pet Partners or another therapeutic pet organization. Other people know that they are breaking the law when they purchase a vest online and head off to the coffee shop with Fido in tow; they just don’t care.

They also might not think they are harming anyone, but that’s often untrue. Most pets are not temperamentally suited for the stress of being in public. Stressed-out dogs might pant, drool, pull toward an exit, hide behind the handler  — or become aggressive. It’s not fair to subject a pet to this level of stress. A dog that is reactive to other dogs, has high prey drive, or any tendency at all to behave aggressively should not be in public. These dogs pose a threat to other people and to people with legitimate, well-trained service dogs.

What’s important for everyone to know, whether members of the public, pet owners, or managers and employees of businesses, is that the right to access is not an absolute right. A person can be asked to remove a dog who is misbehaving, is showing aggression, or is not under the handler’s control — even if the person does have a disability and even if the dog is a trained service dog. Asking a person to remove a dog under those circumstances is not a violation of access laws.

Ethical service dog trainers are careful about which dogs they place as service dogs, both to ensure that the person’s needs are met and to ensure that the dogs they place are comfortable and safe working in the public eye. Service dogs get lots of attention, including petting and hugging from random children (and adults) who run up to them out of nowhere. They endure a barrage of noises, smells, and sights that most pets cannot even imagine. Not all dogs can (or want to) do this work. It’s unfair to expect an unprepared, untrained dog (or other animal) to behave perfectly and calmly in public, even if he is wearing a really nice vest. And it is unfair and unethical to endanger properly trained working dogs and members of the public by taking a poorly prepared, frightened dog into situations that he or she cannot handle.

 

 

 

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 Syracuse.com 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.

 

Is Your Dog Smarter Than A …

Is your dog as smart as a human 2-year-old? A 5-year-old? A (gasp) teenager? Does it depend on what breed your dog is?
We can’t help it, we humans. We want to put everything into neat little human-constructed boxes. That is, I think, what is going on when people try to define dogs’ (or other non-humans’) intelligence in human terms. That and the common, if arrogant, human assumption that we are the smartest creatures, so everyone else — dolphins, dogs, starfish — can and should be evaluated, based in how they compare with us in human-like ways.
But really, how many human 2-year-olds would you trust to guide you across a busy street? Or turn loose in the wreckage of a natural disaster or terror site, with the expectation that the little tyke would let you know where the survivors are trapped? We use dogs to find lost 2-year-olds, don’t we? And protect them (and other humans) from diabetic coma or severe peanut allergies, warn of their impending seizures, coax those who have autism or have suffered trauma to connect — and so, so much more.
The basis for comparison is obviously flawed. Dogs are much like human toddlers in many ways, it’s true — their unbounded love of play; their sweet willingness to befriend just about anyone. Yet they are so much better at some things than any child could ever be — better at some things, such as anything based on scent, than any human of any age could ever be.
So, how should we measure, evaluate, understand canine intelligence?
We can start by acknowledging that intelligence is a complicated concept — there are many types of intelligence. Among people for example, there is social intelligence or emotional intelligence, there is numerical or problem-solving or analytical intelligence. Business acumen, logic, performing well under extreme stress — all of these might be considered different skill areas or types of intelligence. Intelligence is what helps you (or your dog) navigate life, with all the challenges and detours it throws in your path. We are all stronger in some areas, weak or ridiculously incompetent in others. The same is true of dogs.
We can also think about the skills that dogs have that have no parallel in human ability or intelligence — and the myriad ways we can help dogs develop and use those skills in partnerships that make life better for humans and dogs.
Some dogs excel at reading people’s body language. According to several prominent dog cognition researchers, among them superstars Brian Hare and Adam Miklosi, dogs — even very young puppies — excel at reading humans’ pointing gestures and where their humans gaze. This is a type of social intelligence. I am sure that many, many dogs excel at this. However, not all dogs do. I know. I live with one who fails miserably at reading gestures.
Other dogs (including the one who cannot follow a pointing finger to save her life), can intuit a person’s mood and provide exactly what is needed: comfort, humor, affection, appeasement, a favorite toy.
Still other dogs are great problem-solvers. They analyze each new situation and map out a solution.
Some dogs are born to … fill in the blank: Provide mobility assistance, search out bombs or drugs, find lost or hurt people, detect tumors, comfort lonely elderly people, make children laugh.
I don’t think it matters whether your dog is smarter than a toddler. I don’t think it is a fair or relevant comparison. What does matter is assessing each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, his or her specific areas of intelligence. Then, we can figure out how to stimulate and challenge each dog in the ways that will allow him or her to succeed, thrive, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Service Dog Appreciation Week!

service dog week

As National Service Dog Appreciation Week draws to a close, I want to draw your attention to an article I co-authored with Deni Elliott. It is a discussion of the current and growing problem of fake service dogs and “inappropriate” service dogs, that is, dogs who may be trained to assist a person with a disability but who are not trained for public access and/or have a temperament that makes them unsafe in public spaces. Unfortunately, Deni and other service dog partners are encountering more and more dog-reactive dogs, which makes it challenging and unsafe for their dogs to work.

Our proposal, which might be controversial, suggests a solution. We hope this article will be part of a larger debate in the service dog community as well as among policy makers and will ultimately help find a solution. You may download the article from Deni’s website or from the portfolio page of this website.