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The Cruelty of a Fake Service Dog
Today I was working with a family who live in a development with fairly strict HOA regulations. As part of those regulations, certain breeds of dogs are not permitted on the property. German Shepherds, pit bulls, shar-peis and a few other breeds (I didn't see the complete list) are not allowed to be kept in any of the homes within this community. Breed bans have largely been proved to be both ineffective and inhumane. They make absolutely no sense, and aren't based on factual research of dog aggression. But I'm not writing about that today.
I'm writing because the family who I was working with in the previously mentioned community had someone move in who has a service dog, who also happens to be able to be categorized as a pit bull. But it seems that this is an instance of a fake service dog. I've met service dogs from many bully breeds- they are loyal, smart and focused which makes them excellent candidates for that line of work. Service dogs are protected by federal law, and landlords nor businesses can disallow access of a service dog, which is considered a necessary medical device. It is a protected class of dog, and for excellent reason. Dogs can be trained to provide valuable and life changing methods for a variety of health concerns. They can alert seizures, blood sugar changes, anxiety attacks, PTSD episodes. They can retrieve medications, provide aid in helping someone off the ground, go look for help if someone needs urgent care, even call for help. These examples just scratch the surface of the value of a highly trained canine. I recently have started using a service dog myself, after several long and grueling months of training with Rio. It has allowed me a great deal of empowerment to have a service dog that allows me to better cope with a health concern that was limiting my life otherwise. But it wasn't easy to train, and it's constant effort for us as a team to maintain a standard of good behavior. Even as a dog professional for a number of years, training service dogs has begun a whole new lifetime of learning. So when someone claims to have a service dog, that isn't a highly trained and maintained partner- it impacts me deeply, not just as a trainer- but as someone who needs their canine to have safe access for their health.
Traveling with a service dog, even aside from the skills practice that needs to be done daily, is a great deal more difficult then people realize. You have to attend to a living being's needs- make sure you have water, food, poop bags, etc at all times. You have to recite the law as you go about your day, and listen to every 3rd person that crosses your path coo at your dog, trying to break their concentration or convince you let you touch them. So while I am grateful for the freedom and benefits that Rio offers me, it is not easier to have a service dog than to have a pet dog, in fact there is a great deal even more responsibility. And it takes a whole heck of a lot more than an online registration, which isn't required at all for service dogs. A service dog's true certification is their behaviors. Service dogs are not toy size dogs. Service dogs are always in perfect heel position unless preforming a task. Service dogs are not overly excited to see you when they are in harness working. They do not pee or poop indoors. Having a service dog is not the same as wanting more public spaces for you to go with your pet.
When someone goes online, and pays whatever fee, to register their dog as a service dog without it being highly trained- I understand the challenge you are trying to address. You would like more spaces to have canine access, your dog is really well behaved, etc etc. I would love to see more public spaces for dogs. But this isn't how we get there. Every time a fake service dogs misbehaves in a restaurant or airplane- or wherever- it makes everyone around that dog leave with an impression. An impression that ALL service dogs are fake, not needed, a luxury. It ignores the hard work that goes into training a service dog, the effort on the part of the handler, the years of dedication for even that dog themselves. It creates a more hostile environment for the next service dog that enters the facility and it creates a false narrative of what the expectations are to present as a service dog. Those little ID badges, certificates, even a vest- none of those are required by law. The only requirement is that the dog is trained to perform tasks, concrete actions, (at least 3 separate skills), for a person with a disability. And that they are in control of the handler to basically be as invisible, and not disruptive as a dog can be. It is perfectly legal for a service dog not to have any identifying features other than their behavior. It is also perfectly legal for an individual to train their own service dog, though of course I would recommend a good training program, and expect at least an 8-12 month commitment to that specialized training, for a dog with basic manners already.
So what happens more often than not, is that a fake service dog has a very legitimate looking, laminated identification form, as well as a fancy vest or other identifying costume, goes in to a public space and causes a mess, scene or even picks a fight with another dog. The owner may be embarrassed, or angry, or both. Service dogs do occasionally make a mistake, but a service dog handler will have also been taught to address mistakes and take care of them quickly and effectively. But because of the number of fake service dogs that now exist in the world, there is also an expectation that a service dog who makes a small error is likely "fake" because there has been so much visibility of the fake dogs acting out. It creates a really hostile environment for even training a service dog. I've been asked a few times to provide Rio's "service dog paperwork", not based on her behavior- but just because I identified her as a service dog, because people are so used to seeing the fake registry information and assuming it's legitimate. I've been half tempted to register online just to avoid the conversation but I don't want to feed into a system that's creating the problem.
I would love to see more canines out in the world, but in order to do that, we have to take responsibility for training our dogs, and not just take liberties where accommodation exists. If you have a well behaved dog, frequent pet friendly businesses, and lead by example. Do not register your dog online for an education it has never received. Do not make it harder for someone trying to use a tool to help a medical condition. It feels really selfish and short sighted to those of us who need to use a dog, and are so grateful that the option exists. Please don't take that option lightly, because it will be us who suffer because of your misuse.
Let's be real, I love dogs in costumes. I actually am not sure there is anything I find more delightful then a dog dressed up. I'm a sucker, what can I say?
But Halloween can be a minefield for our canine friends, and there are a few things we can do to help them get ready, and enjoy the holiday aside from winning Insta. So what should we be doing to help our dogs enjoy the season as much as we do?
Well firstly, if your dog(s) goes bananas every time the doorbell rings, or a door knocks, you may be dreading trick or treaters. Conditioning to stimulus takes time, but here are some tips to get started. You may not be fully prepared for this upcoming Halloween, but these exercises will help your pup all around.
1. Ask a friend or a member of your household to help you. Put your pup on a leash. Practice getting "look" a few times with a high value treat. Then have your assistant go outside. Ask them to knock lightly on the door. When your dog gets over excited or stimulated use the leash to guide them away, and then do not answer the door until they have calmed down and are are giving you "look". Reward the calm and alternative behavior. Repeat the exercise for either 15 minutes or until a light knock no longer provokes an extreme reaction, but the alternative behavior- which ever comes first. If within the first 15 minutes you can not get an alternative reaction, just practice look until you get that. The goal is always for the dog to be successful, and that is where you end your training session. As your dog becomes more successful, increase the stimulus level. Keep your training sessions short, and again, end on a high note. If your dog is crate trained, you can do the same exercise, but with them in the crate, they can still give you their attention from inside their little den. It can take up to a month or so of practice to really get the results you want, but the impact is life long. Once your dog is successful with increasingly loud stimulus, you can even add in Halloween masks, treat bags, etc. All of those things are foreign to your dog and can be really intimidating!
2. Create a "safe space" for your dog the night of Halloween. Ideally, Fido would be crate trained, but even reducing their space down to a room they hang out in can be helpful. Set up some soothing background noise. Dogs like the radio, or a low level television. Our dogs genuinely like Animal Planet, not kidding- because it's not a super loud channel with people yelling or anything. Consider investing in high quality calming treats- we swear by the brand Treatibles- they are by far the highest quality and most consistent calming treat on the market. Get a plug-in Adaptil(TM), and set it up a few days ahead of time. Make sure that the day of Halloween your dog has had a good amount of exercise, more than usual, so that they are tired and ready to relax. Make a Kong with frozen peanut butter or wet food, or get a bully stick/marrow bone for the occasion. Essentially the goal is to prepare your dog physically and mentally to relax. It will save you a headache later and make your dog look forward to exciting nights as opposed to anxious. If your dog isn't crate or space trained, consider having a member of the household serve as the dog guardian for the night, keeping pup on a leash and safely away from doors and the loud noises. Even if your dog LOVES company, trick or treating can be overstimulating. Especially if there are some sparklers or other small fireworks happening, too!
3. Costumes. Costumes. Costumes. Familiarize your dog with your costume if you are wearing one, especially if it has a mask. It can be confusing for dogs to smell their human but see something on their face- leave the mask out for a few days where pup can see it casually. The same goes for those perfect and adorable costume you plan on dressing Spot up in. Leave it out- let them eat treats off of it- and practice. Seriously. Dogs do not automatically tolerate wearing clothing, as much as we would like them to. When I'm familiarizing dogs at first with wearing things, even a back pack- I use a Kong with a frozen treat inside. I hold it out for them to work on while I pick up their paws, handle their ears, and rest my arms over their backs. Once they are comfortable with that, I lay a towel over their backs while they still work on the kong to get used to weight and draping. Then we work up to different pieces of the costume, letting them smell and then conditioning them to put it on. The benefit of this is that most of the time, they are so used to me putting crazy things on them, I'm able to get AMAZING photos because they aren't trying to pull it off. Costumes have been associated with fun and treats, and they aren't spending their whole time trying to escape or looking depressed. It's ok for your dog to be a little anxious when you first start introducing any upper level stimulus- but it's important that you give them the chance to associate it positively, rather than forcing the issue. Practice handling your dog slowly, and soon you will have a pup that gladly wears whatever ridiculous thing we come up with next.
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