My husband and I were in a pet supply store when we noticed a man surrounded by a gaggle of young girls, oohing and ahhing over the small dog in his lap. The dog was wearing a vest with “service dog” imprinted on it – the same words on the harness of my own service dog. Then, the man’s little dog suddenly noticed my own dog, a large, 95-lb German shepherd. The man’s dog leaped off his lap and attacked. Within seconds this so-called “service dog” was hanging off my dog’s neck, salivating in fury.
The only thing that kept my dog from injury was his large fur ruff. That, and the fact he did not retaliate. Like all well-trained service dogs, he did nothing, didn’t bark, snarl, bite or even try to get away.
And what did the small dog’s owner do? He laughed and said something about his dog being brave and spirited. No, his dog was neither brave nor spirited, just ill-trained and most certainly not a service dog.
This is the fourth time my dog has been attacked by another dog during the years I’ve had him. Undoubtedly the small number of attacks were due not to the fine training of other dogs, but because mine is well-trained, as all service dogs must be. As a result, he is neither dog-reactive nor, in fact, able to defend himself. He is, after all, a service dog – meant to be at my side to help me, not defend me.
It is incidents like this that have given the entire industry of “service dogs” a bad name. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come up to me to ask, “Where can I buy a service dog vest like your dog has?” or “I have a service dog too, because I get nervous around (fill in the blank).” One person actually told me that she wanted a service dog because then, lots more people would notice her and she wanted to be famous one day. Seriously.
At one point in my career, I worked with the parents of adults with developmental disabilities. Because of a service dog, several of the adults with disabilities were able to move out of their parents’ homes and live independently. Not a small feat for someone with a severe impairment who wants to live much as the rest of us do. What must it be like to have to depend on someone else all the time? Now, imagine the difference a service dog makes: being pulled in your wheelchair without your arms aching in fatigue; having a dog pick up what you’ve dropped rather than waiting for someone to show up and having to ask for help; having people greet you rather than avoid you because you have a disability.
When people ask me where to get a vest or harness like my dog has, I often want to ask them which disability they would like to have. A spinal injury? Multiple sclerosis? Amputated legs? Granted, not every disability is visible. But the training of every service dog is.
Incidents like the one we endured at the pet supply store have resulted in 19 states enacting laws to crack down on those who pass off their pets as service animals. In time, I suspect more states will follow suit. That’s a shame. The service dog industry, at least the reputable organizations, have worked hard to keep the government from prescribing regulations which may or may not benefit the people who need these dogs the most.
Yesterday, we had lunch at a busy restaurant. The receptionist showed us to a booth and, as usual, my dog – large though he is – slipped under the table. When we got up to leave, the waiter exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, I never knew he was there!” That’s the way a service dog is trained, to be quiet and nonintrusive.
I’m so proud of my “big boy.” He is an example of how a real service dog should be. But he shouldn’t be an “example.” He should be just like any dog that claims this distinction – no more, no less.
Current regulations do not require a service dog to wear any identification. People with these dogs, however, generally use a vest, collar, harness or some other accouterments, as a courtesy to identify their dog in public. Yet, I hope the day comes when service dogs don’t have to wear any notification denoting their status. People will instantly know it’s a service dog because of the animal’s impeccable behavior.
But, human nature being what it is, and the fact that there is, at present, no national registry for legitimate service dogs, it may only be a question of time before the government clamps down.
Years ago, there was a comedian who had the gag line: “Here, take my wife — please!” Maybe the next time someone asks me where they can get a vest for their pet dog, I should answer: “Here, take my disability — please!”
Thank you for listening, or in this case, reading my personal thoughts on this subject today. Regards, Dr. B