As news reports surface of people attempting to claim, pigs, peacocks, snakes and all manner of livestock as either service animals or emotional support animals; it seems the public has had enough. The truly Mighty warriors who need service animals are frustrated as people make a mockery out of legitimate service animals, but these phony animals also place real service animals who have undergone hours of extensive training at extreme costs of both time and money under unfair scrutiny, and at times can place both the owner and service animal in possible danger.
To be clear, the American With Disabilities Act has extremely well defined statutes on what is considered a service animal (it must be a dog, or in rare cases a miniature horse) and what this entails. This is not an opportunity for you to try to get Fi-Fi to be your accessory and go shopping with you, eat lunch at your table, stay in your hotel while you relax on the beach and fly with you on vacation. In fact, it means precisely none of these things.
Let me use this opportunity to digress for a moment and explain how awesome my own dog is. I got her at a low point in my life. I was constantly bedridden from pain, or asleep from chronic fatigue, was extremely depressed, my marriage was ending, and I had this idea that loving, nurturing and taking care of a puppy would be good for me. One day I found myself sitting on a floor surrounded by puppies and the runt of the litter climbed into my lap. When I stopped spoiling her and started looking at her siblings, she crawled into my purse and took a nap. She very determinedly chose me, so I knew I had to take her home.
She turned out to be the perfect dog for me. She wakes me up everyday at the same time to take my medicine — not because she needs to go outside — she just shakes her dog tags until I get up and take my medicine. If she wants to go outside she rings a concierge bell with her paw. Somehow she can sense where my muscles are hurting the most and she will lay right on that spot, heating it up and offering it a little relief. It is pretty miraculous how she always gets it right. She can also sense if I have a migraine coming and will place her head against the back of my neck and sleep like that for as many hours as the migraine is at its most severe. Since she can warn me that a migraine is coming, I can take the medicine to stop it earlier than if it is already in full force, which helps to end it sooner.
Related: 12 Misconceptions About Service Dogs
Why is this relevant? According to the ADA, a service dog must have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Due to my injury and chronic illness, do I fit the the criteria for an individual with a disability? Although that is not a term I would use for myself, technically the answer is yes. Has my dog been trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability? My dog is amazing and yes, she has been trained to wake me up consistently to remind me to take my medicine and also warn me if a migraine is coming on, so according to the ADA these two items do fall under the criteria of “working or performing tasks.” She also knows how to calm down myself and at least one of my children from an anxiety attack, but according to the ADA this would be providing comfort and would not meet ADA service animal criteria as it would be emotional support.
So yes, my dog is amazing and yes, she does perform some service animal functions, but I do not consider her a service animal. Why, you might ask? Here is the thing about service animals. They require intensive training. Yes, they may be able to accompany you into a store, but to stand still next to you and stay on task requires hours of training in varying scenarios. I have done this only a few times with my dog and she is fine until she sees a child, because she knows children are all just large drool-covered popsicles that she wants to taste.
Service dogs train to be able to go into a restaurant and lay quietly and unobtrusively under the table, not sit in the booth with you or try to catch scraps raining down from above. They are like a sentry on duty. As for those taking advantage of the disabled by claiming your dog is a service dog to get into a hotel, shame on you! You should also know a service dog would not be left alone in a hotel room unattended, because as people with real service dogs know, the dog would be with you the entire time as they have a job to do. My dog simply lacks training, and has lived most of her life snuggling and napping with me.
Real service dogs go through hours and hours of training that can take years. It can also be quite expensive to attain a dog that has gone through such vigorous training. When you see a service dog, that dog could represent years of saving or a multitude of fundraisers to be able to afford the dog in the first place, and then there is the difficult process of finding the right dog for the right owner and their specific conditions. Therefore, I implore you, please have more respect for those around you with legitimate service dog needs.
I know how much we love and care about our pets, but we need to remember to prioritize the needs of people who rely on service dogs for daily life. As businesses have positive experiences with legitimate service animal owners, I think they will reopen dialogue and doors to the general pet community, which will create a winning situation of support for all.