An Open Letter to Sasha Pfeiffer: Regarding the Proposed “Fake Service Dog” Bill

The march of potentially bad legislation to combat the “fake service dog” problem marches on. I just got a link to this article in the Boston Globe about some proposed legislation. The comments are the usual sort of angry making, although there are some voices of reason in there and some folks commenting who understand the issues to varying degrees. Very clear, however, is that the general public really doesn’t understand the issue very well, nor does the general public understand what our rights are and what rights businesses have.

I probably sound like a broken record (y’all know what that is, right?) at this point, but again, I outline in the email I sent to the author of the article my particular views on this issue. I’ve pasted that email below.

Hi Sasha,

I’d love to comment on the story’s page, but I can’t (I’m not a subscriber, and I live far away).

I am, however, a guide dog user. I’m working my fourth, and the first that I’ve owner trained, i.e. trained myself.

I’d like to address your article. Thanks for writing it and bringing this issue to the forefront. Naturally, I have an opinion or two.

Sadly, I think too many of the proposed laws, and the articles that cover them, have the wrong angle on this issue. Really, it’s in part our fault, but only in part. We’ve done a great job at educating the public to the fact that we, as people with disabilities, are allowed to have our service dogs with us in public places. The language we have traditionally used, however, is a problem, as it places the emphasis, and the right of access, incorrectly on the dog.

You’re a journalist, and words are your bread and butter. You can, I’m sure, spot the difference in these two sentences:

My service dog has the right to be here.

I have the right to have my service dog here.

Far too often, we have used sentences like the former, when we should correctly be saying the latter. It is people with disabilities who have the right to bring a task trained service dog into places where animals are not traditionally allowed, but to which the general public is. The ADA and other laws which have similar but, confusingly, different definitions and requirements, all say, more or less, that a person with a disability has the right to be accompanied by a service dog, individually trained to perform tasks or do work to mitigate a disability. We’ll leave emotional support animals out of it for the moment, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, different regulations, and not at all relevant to discussions of the ADA.

OK, all that said, it means that you are claiming two things when you represent your pet as a service dog:

  • You have a disability.
  • Your dog is trained specifically to mitigate that disability.

If both conditions are not met, you do not have the right to be accompanied by that animal.

Were it true that your dog had the right to be somewhere, the fact of your disability wouldn’t matter: merely training would suffice, most likely. But since the right of access is for the person with a disability, not for the animal, it is the person who is perpetuating the fraud. So the dog isn’t fake, but the training and the disability are.

These laws, therefore, should punish the right things: fraudulently claiming that you have a disability, and fraudulently claiming your dog has had disability mitigating task training. Certainly behavior would be easy to prove for the second claim, which would open up the gate for the first.

But here’s my real point. The laws we already have are adequate. What is not adequate is the exercising of rights by business owners facing badly behaved dogs. Whether a dog is a service dog or not, a business has the right to have the dog removed if it is disruptive, aggressive, etc. The right to be accompanied by a service dog is by no means absolute. If my legitimately trained service dog lunged at and bit a random stranger, a store manager would be well within his rights to require that I take my dog out of the store. However, whether through ignorance or fear, these rights are not being exercised.

I maintain that I, as a law-abiding guide dog user, should not have to bear the burden of other people’s bad behavior. And that’s exactly what a law like this could potentially be making me do. Remember, the fakers have lots of ID and will gladly show it to you. I, as an owner trainer, have no ID, can’t show you one, don’t have to show you one, but my dog’s behavior is as good as any professionally trained dog of similar age and maturity level.

Well, it’s official…

It’s now official, or as official as these things ever are. Which is probably not very. But, while I’ve been working Hildegard in active duty since May, working Leno only rarely, I think i can officially call her a guide dog, not a guide dog in training. I have been doing this, in reality, since May at least, when we went on our trip to visit family and attend a training conference in Texas. There are still rough edges, like “Hilde, for god’s sake, don’t run in the halls!” and “Hilde, now really, you don’t need to pull like a freight train”, and “Make a choice, and be wrong with confidence” (oh wait. She’s actually pretty good at that.) And, with some odd brains falling out issues aside, she’s been doing a great job. If she had a fault, it’s that she is too friendly and social, but as faults go, it’s one we can deal with.

So, this week, her spiffy new name tag, the one with her name and my name and phone number in case she gets lost, now says “guide dog”, and not “guide dog in training” anymore. She, of course, doesn’t know the difference.

So who knew? A few months shy of two years ago, I got this raw tiny puppy with huge feet, and I had this notion that maybe I could get a guide dog out of the deal. Along the way, I had definite plans and ideas about how the training would proceed, and absolutely none of them came to anything. Hilde short circuited my plans for traffic training by showing traffic sense all on her own. Training was very organic, perhaps somewhat disorganized, and I didn’t get nearly the socialization opportunities I would have liked. But in spite of any lack, and in spite of my best laid plans, she came out all right anyway. I’ve gotten nothing but compliments on her behavior from other guide dog users. Yes, she can definitely stick that nose in some unfortunate places, visit with people she doesn’t need to (I am always telling her to stop petting the humans), and of course she will make mistakes, decide to walk down the wrong hallway when the hallway forks, and on and on it goes. But by gosh, we did it, and she’s a wonderful dog and a really good guide. She makes me look pretty decent. I have to chuckle at the people who say “self trained guide dog” instead of “owner trained”, because maybe… this case….it’s true. I sort of feel like I had very little to do with it this time.