I had a conversation on Facebook recently, as a result of our “Is that a Service Dog?” post. The conversation was a good one and I think that it is worthwhile to expand on it here. We may have posted on this topic in the past, but questions come up, and because I like to talk to our friends I’ll give you my perspective on most anything and if it relates to Casper, all the better. The conversation started with a comment that was something like: “I’m surprised that as part of the ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) Service teams are not issued some sort of identification that can be carried at all times.” Now, this is a polarizing issue to be sure. I’ve actually talked to many people on this topic. An ID card seems like a very simple solution, but like I said during the conversation, this is a rabbit hole that could lead places we don’t want to go. What we have today is a system that works, but how well it works is up to interpretation.
Service animals meet specific qualifications that allow them access anywhere the handler goes (as long as the environment is not “clean” or “sterile”). This includes restaurant kitchens, hospitals (except for the operating theater, -and maybe the NICU/ICU?-), and other places you may be surprised to find an animal. For me to take Casper anywhere I go, it is convenient for me to identify him in a service vest that is patched up six ways from Sunday. As a handler (today) I am not required to do this in any fashion. The only reason for a vest, collar, leash, other identification is really so I don’t have to justify him at every single door we move through, and to reduce the number of people who call out or try to pet him. Our qualifications as a service team are our actions. We both know our job and we do it. Casper is trained to be calm, confident and reactive only to specific requests that I ask of him. If he does have moments that are “out of control” (I have never seen him out of control) I simply need to be able to “appropriately correct for the situation”, according to ADA law. If I cannot control him then, and only then, can I be asked to leave a place of business. Even if that did happen, the business owner is still required by law to serve me, if I request it. In the case of a store, if I was there to buy an item and did not have the opportunity to do so, given the situation, I can ask for the item to be brought to me outside. We would then exchange money for that item and when the transaction is complete I would leave the premises. If I need to return to that establishment on a different day (with Casper), we are (by law) to be welcomed inside and not pre-judged on the basis of previous experience. No amount of identification easily solves that. People’s feelings and expectations are involved.
I can hear the questions already. What stops me then, from bringing my dog anywhere too? What makes you so special? Okay, good point? …I suppose. My answer would have to be this. Nothing – and EVERTHING! First off, I have a disability. Most people have no reason to even have a clue what it is like to navigate life with anything other than ease. One foot in front of the other is not something people think about, right? So I don’t expect you to fully understand that it something that takes particular concentration for me. And it’s okay that you don’t understand that. My dog is a highly trained individual who wants to work with me, (not for me). (I really should have a video clip of when I remove his off-work harness and have his service vest out. He’s visibly happy to put his service vest on, comes running and sticks his head right in.) He helps me in what may look like subtle, or invisible, ways to you. So, who cares if I put a vest on a pet and bring him to dinner? What stops me? Well, nothing. Thanks to the Internet it’s easy to go buy a vest. Legally I can’t tell the difference. In reality, I can spot you long before you notice me. I promise you, I see you. All legitimate handlers do. It’s like if you drove your truck after having a couple too many. Did you see that officer before they stopped you? I’d bet not. (Editor’s Note: The family members of service animal teams also become very adept at spotting you as well. I often am a “spotter,” so to speak, when we go out. If Dan is busy with something I may see an untrained team approaching first and warn him. Too often these fake service dogs decide to bark at Casper or even try to play, which can be a distraction to a working team.) We have worked tirelessly to become one with our animal. We work with organizations like Service Dog Project, obedience trainers, physicians, and the list goes on. We learn each other. I see actions in my dog that you never would see. I sense actions in my dog before he even starts to do it. (Which can really frustrate Casper. For example, if he has an itch and it is not an appropriate setting for him to just start scratching away I will end it before it even starts.) I don’t know everything; I am learning every time we go out. I guarantee I know more about my dog than most pet owners know about theirs. We’re connected. You need to leave your dog home to chew on the couch.
So, that begs the question then, “Why not have an official registration for service dogs?” One of the many reasons service teams are not “registered” is that there would need to be governing bodies over the entire system. This costs money, time, and effort that would be passed on to the handlers. This is a community of individuals who live with disability costs such as wheelchairs, specialized vehicles, enough medications to choke a horse, customized housing, and on and on. Needless to say, it is nice to not be saddled with another cost. The federal government helped when they passed the ADA. Assistance Dogs International (ADI) also steps in by advocating a standard for placement, training, utilization of service dogs. I highly recommend them to people who ask about what standard a dog should meet to be a “certified dog.” (Service Dog Project is a member organization.) This still does not make a complete system. There are many points to work out. Some of those are:
- Who will come up the standard for each type of service dog?
- Who will enforce the law (the town, the state or the federal government)?
- How do you officially identify a service animal?
- Who regulates the service gear we need to be in public?
Today we largely have non-profit organizations producing service dogs, either by breeding or by training shelter dogs. If there were a national registry it would likely be run by a government body. This typically means ridiculous additional laws, more paperwork, and other work for the organization. I have seen just some of the reams of paperwork without the full hand of the federal government and heard a couple stories about what a board of directors might face in order to get a dog to a recipient, whether or not the recipient helped to pay initial costs toward raising a dog. The costs start at $15,000, more often it is closer to $25,000-$30,000, just to have a dog ready for a recipient. (That is more money that what many people pay for a car!) How many non-profits could withstand more regulation and fees? Before long we’d have otherwise well intentioned organizations forced out by the “business” of service animals.
I will walk the plank and say that I am in favor of a registration system. Of course, a half baked solution is not worthwhile. What if I was to look into a future that had a service animal registry? What would that look like? To start we should look to systems that already (arguably) works. We need to be able to take our dogs everywhere, so a town dog license is not enough. Modeling the state concealed carry pistol permit is rubbish; we’re a nation state so crossing invisible boarders is a given. Local government is out of the question. You may leave now.
I believe that the only way it could work is with a federal system. Some of my guidelines would include:
- Every animal is “chipped”. The number traces back to the organization that raised/trained the animal and to the handler when that time comes. The animal is never “sold” to the handler. Responsibility of the animal is transferred to the handler and guardianship may be revoked if deemed necessary.
- Registration would be handled similar to a passport is today. This allows for federal control. If you have a state issued ID or Drivers License there could be a demarcation showing that you are a handler. If not, you are issued a card.
- All of this should be in a federal database accessible by authorized bodies. The U.S. should work with other countries to ensure reciprocity.
- In order to buy service animal gear you must identify your animal.
- Service animal organizations are tax exempt AND funded by the government. This works because in this future world, corporations are NOT people. They pay taxes as do the rich. Nobody gets to make money on tax kickbacks.
- The prison system gets overhauled so that white collar crime is penalized appropriately and the addicted actually get help for the root cause of their issue. This frees up perfectly good kennel space for responsible breeding and care of service dogs. Maybe tomorrow’s corrupt politicians and those white collar criminals work in the Federal Service Dog space. When they are done they might know how to love something other than themselves.
If I gave this any thought I may have some ideas on how this could work. If I wasn’t so easy derailed I could have just given you a pro’s and con’s list, but is that what you really want? (Don’t answer that – It’s a rhetorical question, Farley!)
We love you all very much. Now – Go out and call those service gear buying fakers out. (As respectfully and loving as humanly possible.) I give you permission with all the authority writing for this blog gives me.