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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.