Services dogs are specially trained dogs that are able to perform tasks and aid their handler who has some level of disability requiring assistance. Emotional support dogs, also called therapy animals) are not services dogs but are trained to assist with psychological or physiological therapies. A canine companion is just your pal.
Can we be honest for a minute? I love my dog. I’ve loved all of my pets: dogs, dragons and exotic birds. It is a dream to be able to have them with me all the time. But misusing or simply pretending your dog, dragon or peacock is a service animal is getting out of hand.
Don’t get me wrong. Animal behaviorists tell us that many animals can be trained as effective therapy animals. That is great. But what bothers me is everyone who games this system is making it harder for others to be able to get on with their lives.
Asking for Service Dog Certification
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses and eating establishments are not allowed to consider a service animal as a “pet” and must allow them in without restriction or segregation. Thought to be off limits, asking someone about their service animal is appropriate, though demanding proof is not allowed.
You are allowed to as two questions of someone bringing an animal into your establishment:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work task has the dog been trained to perform?
While most service dogs do wear a vest, this isn’t required. Many do have a special harness or ID tag, but again, these are not required by the ADA.
Delineating Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs
Service dogs are allowed in more places than therapy dogs by law. While many establishments that don’t allow pets are allowed to accommodate therapy dogs, the rights of service dogs extend greater than for therapy and emotional support dogs and animal. If pets are not permitted, technically therapy dogs aren’t either.
This typically is true in restaurants, grocery stores and hotels. Airlines will often allow therapy dogs to accompany a traveler through the airport and in the cabin with the right documentation. ESA Doctors provides carrier approved letters to help air travelers get the right documents to avoid panic and anxiety at 30,000 feet.
Both Types of Certified Animals Are Needed
Service dogs are needed. Emotional support dogs are needed. What isn’t needed are those who don’t have a need for either who walk around claiming their dog is a service animal or a therapy dog. What these people are doing is making it easier for discrimination to happen to those who really need the animals.
You Won’t Understand Until You Need Help
I’m going to share a little story that happened to me back in 2015. It was Thanksgiving weekend and my son and I were in Palm Springs for a little staycation. Those who know me know that I will try just about anything, and even try it twice if it involves spending quality time with my son.
Around this time, he was really developing a passion for hiking and canyoneering. I thought it would be a great idea for us to toil around in the forest accessed by the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – known to me as ‘that f-ing gondola.’ This is the world’s largest rotating tramcar that works its way up some 8,000 feet in about ten minutes.
That’s right – a spinning car held by a wire going up 8,000 feet along sheer cliffs at what is really breakneck speed. I can do roller coasters. I can do small plane aerobatics. But something about several tons being held by a wire that is as big as my wrist, nope!
As our turn approached to ascend, I could already feel my heart racing. It was freezing yet I was sweating and having trouble breathing. But I couldn’t let my son down. I found my way into the tram and to the center where there was something I could hold. I stared down at my feet. At one point my son pointed to the view, suddenly realizing exactly how bad a shape mom was in. I was a mess.
I couldn’t get off fast enough. We set off to have lunch and hike and do all the things you could do in an afternoon up at the top. The entire time my mind raced, “What goes up must come down.” And I had no idea how I would get down. None!
The day ended and we stood in line for the tram. With each step closer, my vision focused at my feet, squeezing my son’s hand as we inched closer. Honestly, I was in full panic mode and couldn’t imagine stepping from the platform over the one-inch space into the tram. Just that thought alone had me wanting to find a way to hike down 8,000 feet even though I knew there was none – none that didn’t involve rappelling 300 feet.
Out of nowhere, my eyes caught glimpse of this gorgeous German Shepherd. He had a vest and was with his handler. I knew not to pet him, but I did ask her if he was her service dog. She was more than happy to discuss how getting him had alleviated her anxiety to the point that she could visit places she never imagined.
My voice cracked a bit as I asked, “Do you mind if I stay close to you guys in the tram? I’m really freaking out.”
Her reply, “Actually, I’m fine in the tram. He had a bit of a hard time on the way up. I think it would be great for him to be next to you.”
So, I did, kneeling down on the floor with a service dog down the 8,000 feet pretty much hugging him the whole time. (That’s me and my hero after we made it out alive.) It wasn’t a perfect scenario but I could breathe and focus. It didn’t feel like my heart was about to burst from my chest.
While I always knew service dogs and therapy dogs played a vital role to help their handlers, I know understood in a whole new way.
Why It’s Important to Advocate for Those Who Really Need Them
I don’t need a service animal or a therapy animal. Though my dog is a great provider of stress relief for me (on most days). My life isn’t constrained because I have any serious conditions. What happened to me on the tram was an isolated incident and one that I can choose to avoid in the future.
But those who need these animals really need them. Let’s all be a little more cognizant about how we can help those with disabilities live more comfortably and with less judgment. If fewer people game the system, fewer on-lookers are judging every “service dog” as a fake. Let the dogs do the job they were trained for.
And I’ll forever be glad for the one that came into my life the one day that I really needed him.
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