This month I want to share with you one of my pet peeves. I don’t have many; and most of them have to do with disabilities and attitudes toward people with disabilities. I have shared one in the past regarding labels. I actually told you that I go against the norm because I don’t like the term “disabled” as much as “handicapped” because of the definitions. Disabled means “not able”. Handicapped means “hindrance”. That fits better to me. Of course, I care little about a name or label. This month, though, I want to talk about something that really can be irritating . . . that is, people trying to pass their pets off as service animals just to get them in hotels free and carry them with them everywhere. If you do this or have ever thought about doing it, please listen. If you don’t, I thank you; but listen anyway, so you can help educate others against this practice.
My service animal, a guide dog, had to go through an intensive training program (beginning almost at birth) to learn to love people of all types, to not be afraid and to behave appropriately in public and homes, and also how to guide me. Your pet, no matter how much obedience training you have given it, can never compare to the training that a service animal has. My service animal can handle all types of situations, and he will never bite or be destructive in any way. If he shows any inclination towards misbehavior or aggressiveness at any time during the training or after being matched, the guide dog will be removed from service. His behavior is closely monitored, as are my own handling skills. You can’t say the same for your pet because they will sometimes react out of fear and uncertainty. You couldn’t blame them either, because they can’t understand all the activity in different situations. If your pet is being portrayed as a service animal and misbehaves by being loud, disruptive, destructive, or aggressive in any manner, that behavior makes all service animals look risky in the eyes of the business owner and other customers. It just isn’t fair.
Not only has my service animal been through training, I have, too. The agency that provided my service animal spent over a month of intensive training with me – seven days a week for long days – teaching me what my responsibilities were and how to cooperate with my service animal in different types of situations. I learned how he was supposed to act and how to correctly praise him for doing well and correct his misbehaviors and redirect him to appropriate behaviors. You, pet owner, have not had that kind of intensive training for anything similar to working in a public environment with a service animal. Your own actions with a pet being passed as a service animal reflect negatively on all the service animal handlers everywhere in the eyes of the business owner and other customers. It just isn’t fair.
Service animals of all types have a very important purpose. Without them, many people lose some of their independence and freedom. It took many, many years of advocacy to convince business owners and the public that service dogs would not be a hindrance. A federal law was put in place to ensure our rights to work our partners in public. In some places, despite that law, that educational awareness still continues. If you take your pet to a hotel or a restaurant and the animal misbehaves or causes damage, it can and will undermine all the hard work the service dog industry advocates have made to gain us the freedom to work our companions and be more independent.
Again, there is a Federal law to protect the rights of service dogs and their handlers. That law does not protect you or give you the right to take your pet into public places such as stores, movie theaters, restaurants, etc. Your pet does not belong in the public arena. By being there, your pet can distract our working partners, endangering us, the handlers, and themselves. If you take your pet outside on the streets for walks or into public parks, train your pet to ignore other dogs, especially our working dogs. Be responsible and control your pet and clean up after them. We are and do.
Being disabled and needing a service dog is not a privilege. We wish we weren’t disabled requiring a service dog. Our life is difficult at best, but a service dog gives us a chance to be independent and safer. Please do not hinder our right and ability to use service dogs. Keep your pet out of public buildings. Do not pretend your pet is a service animal. When in outdoor public places with your pet, have them trained, keep them under control, and be mindful of other dogs including and especially, a working service dog. We, service dog handlers, thank you for your understanding.