Pseudo-Assistance Dogs Jeopardize Hard-won Rights for Real Service Animals

February 28, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs · 12 Comments 
no dogs allowed

I saw a news item the other day in the New York Post about Hollywood celebrity Candy Spelling (mother of Tori and widow of TV producer Aaron) bringing her dog, Madison, a Wheaton Terrier, into a New York restaurant wearing a “service dog jacket.”

Is this dog really trained and certified as some type of assistance dog? I really have no way of knowing, but hearing about this incident just reminded me of how more and more I’ve been hearing about people trying to pass off pets as assistance animals.

I’ve even had friends ask to borrow my assistance dog’s backpack so they might be able to bring their pet to some event or into some business. I’ve always said, “Sorry, but no.”

It’s an image and reputation thing. If your pet has not gone through the rigorous training that “real” assistance dogs must obtain, he or she probably won’t be able to behave well enough in public. It’s hard for us who really rely on our assistance animals to condone your desire to have your pet with you everywhere. No matter how much you love them, you really don’t require them the way we do.

For over 75 years, Assistance Dogs have worked successfully in public and won the public’s acceptance by achieving high behavioral and training standards, which set them apart from pets and other animals. Assistance Dogs International, Inc. publishes minimum standards for assistance dog training programs to ensure the highest level of quality in assistance dog performance.

An ill-behaved “pretend” assistance dog gives all the real ones a bad reputation. If there are any incidents, it just makes people feel justified in denying access to a dog in the future, whether it is truly a trained assistance animal or not.

But it’s hard to know which dogs are “real” and which aren’t. If a business owner or someone else suspects that a dog is not really an assistance dog, but just a pet, what are they to do?

Not all people with disabilities are easy to visually identify. It’s not always people with guide dogs out there or those of us in wheelchairs these days. Think about the military veterans with PTSD and their dogs. Or those with hearing loss or autism. Can you tell if the man, woman or child with the dog is truly disabled and if their dog is truly an assistance animal?

What if a business owner confronts someone and they’re wrong? Or what if the customer makes a scene, even if their dog is really a pampered pet. Is the customer always right, no matter what?

People can train their own dogs, too, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, so who certifies or decides which assistance dogs are genuine and which are fakes?

Here’s my fear: Passing your pet off as an assistance dog not only gives the real ones a bad image, it might jeopardize the hard-won rights of people who really need assistance dogs. If there are enough bad incidents, will someone try to enact legislation changing the access laws?

I remember back in the early 90s, three years after the ADA was enacted, when I got my first service dog, Ramona. I was stopped a lot and told things like, “You can’t bring that dog in here.” Nowadays I feel more confident traveling in my state and across the US, but I don’t want things to revert back due to the issue of pseudo assistance dogs.

This is a very real issue that I feel really needs to be discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s an article on the topic that just came out on Disability Scoop and another article from the Wall St. Journal. We discuss assistance dog standards in our book Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook.

Helping Hands: Monkeys as Service Animals

February 25, 2011 · Posted in Training · Comment 
service monkey

Have you caught the recent articles in New Mobility and Action about Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled? Helping Hands is a national nonprofit organization based in Boston that serves quadriplegics and other people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility limitations by providing highly trained monkeys to assist them in their daily activities.

I don’t know about you, but I have always been curious about monkeys as service animals. What kinds of tasks do they do? Who’s a good candidate for a monkey? Do they go out in public? My list of questions goes on and on.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with Megan Talbert, the Executive Director of Helping Hands, on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio.com. Megan’s passion for these amazing primates was crystal clear. And, she demystified a lot of the mystery around these little helpers.

Megan explained that Helping Hands staff and volunteers train monkeys to perform a variety of tasks, such as putting a CD in a CD player, scratching their partner’s nose, picking up the phone, or adjusting their partner’s eyeglasses. And, if you are a person with a disability, you know firsthand the kind of impact these types of tasks can have on our independence and self esteem.

The monkeys participate in intensive training at the Helping Hands’ Monkey College in Boston, MA. Megan described how the monkeys are trained through positive reinforcement. When they do something correctly, they are rewarded with verbal praise and small food treats such as peanut butter or oats. Helping Hands staff have also come up with some clever alternative devices to help people with disabilities to independently dole out the treats both verbally and physically, thus establishing them as the alpha.

To raise, train, and place one monkey costs Helping Hands about $40,000. And miraculously, recipients do not have to pay for their new helpers. Helping Hands covers ALL the costs involved with receiving and maintaining the monkey. This is a huge gift considering the ongoing vet maintenance and care that goes into one of these highly trained animals. Megan and her staff, board and volunteers are responsible for raising all the funds to support the training, placement and ongoing care of the monkeys.

Given the current waiting lists for service dogs, I was glad to hear Megan encourage individuals interested in receiving a monkey to contact Helping Hands. She said that they never know if someone who applies will be a perfect match for a monkey that is nearing graduation; however, she encourages people to send in their applications.

As anyone who is partnered with a service animal knows, it takes work and commitment from both partners to make a solid working team. It was so exciting to hear about the many ways monkeys are working with their partners with disabilities. I hope you will listen to Megan’s interview on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio for more information about Helping Hands.

I am always so moved by the human and animal spirit. When people without disabilities hear about someone who is a quadriplegic or someone who has extremely limited mobility and who minimally leaves their home, they tend to think of them as vulnerable and “less able”. And, let’s face it; they tend to feel sorry for us. Not me. I think it is the coolest thing in the world to think of these folks as the “privileged ones” who have the unique opportunity to bring a capuchin monkey into their lives, to develop an incredibly special bond with that primate, and to have that primate be their personal assistant! How awesome is that?!?

War Dogs Remembered – Recognizing Our Unsung Canine Heroes

February 17, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs · Comment 
Larry Chilcoat

I recently had the pleasure of visiting with veteran military dog handler, Larry Chilcoat on Working Like Dogs at www.PetLifeRadio.com. Larry stopped by to visit with me about the ongoing efforts to build a Military Working Dogs National Monument.

It is amazing the amount of work and dedication that a group of individuals have contributed to the Military Working Dogs National Monument. They have designed and secured a space for a national monument that will honor the heroic past and present United States military dog handlers and their incredible working dogs.

I could still hear Larry’s love for his military dog, Geisha, in his voice. He served in the Air Force in Vietnam as a Sentry Dog Handler, and the impact this dog had on his life could be felt in the way he reminisced about her.

These military working dogs do so much to save and to protect our country and the lives of their military handlers. The men and women who serve bravely beside their canine partners are the unsung heroes that provide us with the freedom we often take for granted.

If you would like to contribute to the Military Working Dogs National Monument, please visit the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument website donations page, where you can make a donation online or find information about mailing in your contribution.

Listen to the entire episode with Larry Chilcoat talking about the Military Working Dogs National Monument on Pet Life Radio.

Current Assistance Dog Legislation

February 10, 2011 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Service Dogs · Comment 
legislative session

As a member of an assistance dog team, I know I sometimes take for granted all of the policy and administrative decisions that are being discussed and implemented. These laws and policies are very important, as they can directly impact our ability to function in public as effective assistance dog teams. Recently I heard about two legislative proposals directly related to assistance dogs that I think are of interest.

Representative seeks to designate National Assistance Dog Week in Hawaii

The first is from Hawaii Representative Corinne Ching. Representative Ching has proposed House Bill 1596 which would formally designate the second week of August as National Assistance Dog Week in Hawaii.

Representative Ching needs your support for this assistance dog specific legislation. She encourages people from throughout the United States to email her at repching@capitol.hawaii.gov and weigh in on her endeavor to make Hawaii the first state to declare NADW (www.assistancedogweek.org) an official holiday! Even a short message saying you approve of this recognition and the public education opportunity it supports will be appreciated.

Penalties for owners of dogs that attack service animals

Secondly, Pennsylvania Representative John Evans has introduced House Bill 165 which creates civil and criminal penalties for dog owners if their pet kills or maims a service animal. This legislation allows for fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to two years, and would require those convicted to pay veterinary and replacement costs.

This legislation is now headed for the Pennsylvania House floor for consideration. I don’t know if you and/or your assistance dog have ever been attacked. I can tell you that my service dog, Ramona, and I were on business in Washington, D.C. and were attacked by a dog while approaching the elevator to the Metro. It was quite a shocking experience because this dog suddenly came from out of a local business located near the Metro elevator.

Luckily, my husband Franz was with me and his quick actions saved Ramona’s life. Ramona suffered post traumatic stress from that moment on. So from a personal perspective, I can really appreciate Representative Evans’ leadership to hold pet owners accountable in such unfortunate incidents. You can connect with Representative Evans’ office through Jennifer Keaton at jkeaton@pahousegop.com or through his Facebook page.

We are all so busy with our everyday lives but I think it is important that we try to pay attention to current legislation that will impact our ability to work and thrive in public as individuals with disabilities with our assistance dogs. Do you know of any other legislation that is currently being proposed in your state that we should be tuned into?

Growing Up Guide Pup

February 3, 2011 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Guide Dogs, Puppyraisers · Comment 
Ricki and the Chapmans

What a lucky dog! One-year-old guide dog in training Ricki spent her birthday at Disneyland in California, but took a break with her people, Matt and Amie Chapman, to talk to me and Whistle on the Working Like Dogs show recently.

Matt and Amie are producing a weekly video series on YouTube called Growing Up Guide Pup, which captures the lessons they’re teaching Ricki, and they told us how they got started with the video series. They’re not only experienced puppyraisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind, but Matt also is a video producer. They combined their interests in their successful video series.

I really respect Matt and Amie for all their hard work being puppyraisers, giving so much of their time to give guide dog puppies a solid foundation for their training. Their idea to start a video blog about puppyraising is unique, and they have lots of viewers on You Tube who seem to be fascinated and eagerly awaiting each week’s new episode.

The videos are produced to be accessible to those who are blind or have vision limitatations, with a simple format and voiceover narration explaining everything that’s happening.

Find out if you might be ready to be a puppy raiser as they share their experiences, the challenges and rewards. You can also hear more about how they raise puppies and how they created their video series on their Working Like Dogs show, episode #45.

To see Matt and Amie Chapman’s video series, go to the Guide Dog Maniac channel on You Tube. You can view the entire Growing Up Guide Pup series, including the episode where Ricki goes to Disneyland and the short special where she meets Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.