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The following guest post was written for The Dogington Post by Veteran Traveler Lon B. Hodge, an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs.
“To fake it is to stand guard over emptiness.”
There is a barely a day goes by that I do not see a tweet, news article or Facebook update about someone being denied entrance into a restaurant or shop because they are accompanied by a service dog. Many of the incidents have involved combat veterans and their PTSD Battle Buddies and other individuals with “invisible” disabilities.
Some of the businesses have suffered catastrophic losses and had their ignorance of disability regulations broadcast nationwide. Some of the public shaming has been wholly earned while some businesses simply had never been educated. With the growing number of service dogs being employed and the number of service dog agencies springing up daily the problem looks to get much worse before it gets better. So why is it happening and what needs to be done?
A lack of standards for certifying a service dog, the growing number of online agencies that will sell anyone a vest and intimidating documents that imply the dog who carries them is legit, and a lack of proper training for service, law enforcement and hospitality personnel are primarily to blame.
Libertyville, Illinois, the town adjacent to where I live, just passed an ordnance requiring Service Dog ID cards for “real service dogs.” Therein lies the rub: There are no legitimate documents that can certify that any canine is authentic. While there are standards for trainers, there are no universally accepted standards for what constitutes an acceptable service dog. And the law itself, while sympathetic to local businesses who don’t want animals in their businesses for fear of losing customers flies in the face of ADA requirements.
The Veterans Administration, ironically exempt from Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation is investigating requiring all dogs to be trained by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) certified trainers. That has caused uproar among established non-ADI trainers who opt out of ADI control over their methods. In the interim, the VA where I receive treatment is seeing a huge increase in the number of dogs and many of them inadequately trained and even dangerous.
A few weeks ago Gander, my service dog who was trained by an ADI certified trainer, was attacked by a dog who clearly had no business being in public yet: The dog barked, failed to heel, and attended little, if at all, to his human. Earlier in the day I spoke to a veteran who openly, and almost proudly, admitted that he had bought his Chihuahua’s vest and laminated credentials online and that he simply told people that his dog was a seizure alert companion. And recently, I watched a Great Dane with a service dog scarf wander from table to table in a local restaurant in search of scrap handouts while the owner laughed and encouraged horrified patrons to ignore him. Though service dog misrepresentation is a crime in many states, few businesses know enough about them to risk media humiliation by sending away a troublesome dog.
And agencies are not anxious to “certify” service dogs. It creates a measure of liability in out litigious society that suit happy plaintiffs and many lawyers would love to see. It could well imply the dog is somehow safe to be in public. While gander has never acted out, he is after all a dog and could possibly be goaded into a conflict an aggressive poser. And what if an innocent bystander was scratched or bitten in the process?
So, greeted with skepticism and questions, those of us with bona fide needs endure unnecessary hostility creates stress that is counterproductive and defeats the purpose for getting a PTSD service dog in the first place. I am worn out by franchises and chain stores rushing to the door to keep me from bringing in my “pet”. Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s have led the way in abusive confrontations. But, I generally take a moment to explain and if there is still conflict I generally exit and write to corporate. I am saddened that confrontation has become routine for me.
“Fake is as old as the Eden Tree,” said Orson Welles. He is right. I returned recently from eight years in China where nothing can be trusted to be as it appears. And the benefits for manufacturers to sell bogus products is not different than the motivation for a pet owner scamming their way into a hotel or onto an airplane with Fluffy or Spike to avoid the extra fees associated with bringing a furry companion.
So, what is there to do? One highly respected service dog group is circulating a petition to bring the Justice Department into the fray. They want the bogus registries shut down. But, I am not for that. Where there is an illegal will, there is a way and people will circumvent the law in an absence of true standards.
I propose a national conference on standards, training and registry that brings together hotels, restaurants, law enforcement, the ADA, trainers, service dog agencies and people like me with a vested interest in peaceful coexistence and accommodation. In the absence of agreement on what constitutes a service dog the problem will persist.