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.

Are Dog Parks a Good Idea for Service Dogs?

March 12, 2010 · Posted in Public Interaction, Service Dogs, Training · 17 Comments 
socializing with other dogs

It seems like every time I turn around these days, some one is suggesting that I take my service dog, Whistle, to a dog park. As a person who uses a wheelchair, this is a little intimidating to me. I am nervous about letting Whistle off lead around strange dogs that neither he nor I know.

I am curious; do you take your dog on a regular basis to a dog park? How has that worked for you? We have a new dog park in my community and I have been interested in visiting it but again, I am nervous about letting Whistle off leash on terrain that can be difficult for me to navigate in my wheelchair. I am concerned about Whistle’s safety.

How safe are dog parks? I know there are great socialization benefits of going to a dog park but there are definitely risks also. A dog park is not your yard or a controlled training environment.

The jury is still out for me. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable taking Whistle to a dog park although I do think he would really enjoy it. Are dog parks a good idea for service dogs? Would you recommend them or avoid them? And if you don’t go to a dog park, how do you make sure your service dog gets enough exercise?

I guess I’m just really an over protective human partner but when I think about all the training and care that has gone into Whistle to support him as a service dog, I just don’t know if I can take the risk against the benefits.

Understanding Working Canine Behaviors

March 10, 2010 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Doggie Healthcare, Training · Comment 
digging dog

I had the opportunity to visit with veterinarian and pet behavior specialist Dr. Jeff Nichol (www.drjeffnichol.com) this week on our radio show, Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio.com. Dr. Nichol brought up some interesting points about behavioral issues that working dogs can exhibit. Some of these hit really close to home for my current service dog, Whistle and past service dogs, Morgan and Ramona.

One of the issues that Whistle shows is excessive digging. Whistle loves to dig a huge hole in our yard. However, quite frankly, my husband and I are not too thrilled with this behavior.

I asked Dr. Nichol what his thoughts were on excessive digging in working dogs. He said that Whistle could be communicating a couple of things with his digging.

Perhaps one issue might be that he isn’t getting enough social interaction with other dogs. I found that really interesting because Whistle is on the go with me all the time and from my perspective, he gets plenty of social interaction. But, this is something I need to pay attention to. Dr. Nichol suggested taking Whistle to a dog park for some extra exercise and interaction with other dogs.

Secondly, he said that Whistle might not be getting enough exercise. Once again, from my perspective, he is on the go all the time and seems to get lots of physical activity throughout the day. Plus, he’s lean and is always full of energy.

I think energy might be the key here. Whistle is definitely a high energy dog. He is always ready to go to work and ready to play. I need to be more aware of his social needs to interact with other dogs and to get enough free, play time.

Dr. Nichol also talked about unruly barking and fearful behaviors such as aggression. Keeping Whistle healthy and happy is my priority. I learned a lot from my visit with Dr. Nichol and I look forward to future discussions with him about the behavioral issues that working dogs develop as they age.

The Influence of Bacon

February 28, 2010 · Posted in People, Public Interaction, Service Dogs, Training · 5 Comments 
Marcie Davis accepting Women of Influence award

Recently, I was honored as a “Women of Influence” by the New Mexico Business Weekly. Over 550 people attended the sold-out luncheon that honored 30 women for their contributions to New Mexico’s economy and community.

During the luncheon, each honoree was to take the stage, share five things about herself that no one knew, and exit the stage for a photo with two prominent female business leaders.

Several of my dearest friends and clients attended the luncheon with me. We dined on a chef salad and other assorted treats. As a woman with a disability, I have limited balance, and the thought of eating a chef salad while wearing a business suit and anticipating my turn on stage, was a little nerve racking.

As I lifted the fork to my mouth, bits of bacon immediately fell from the fork and came to rest down my shirt. As I looked around at the crowded room, I dared not to try and retrieve it. I thought I would just live with it and remove it once we were loaded safely in my van for the drive home.

Whistle was tucked nicely under the table and my husband, Franz, and I visited with the attendees and cheered as each honoree took the stage for her five minutes of recognition. Before I knew it, it was my turn. As the hostess, local award-winning journalist Augusta Meyers, called my name and read my bio, Whistle and I made our way to the stage.

Augusta greeted me on the accessible stage and I boldly shared five things about myself that weren’t too embarrassing, but would hopefully give the audience a glimpse into who I am as a person. As I left the stage, Whistle and I made our way to the foot of the ramp where the two prominent community leaders presented me with various swag including a bottle of wine, flowers and a gift certificate to a local jewelry store. I felt like a runner-up to Ms. America.

Trying to juggle all this stuff in a wheelchair, things were starting to get a little precarious. I was trying to hold the plaque, the flowers, a bottle of wine, and the other gift items, when I caught a twinkle in Whistle’s eye.

Lo and behold, as I was positioning my wheelchair for the photo, Whistle had caught the scent of bacon. It was nothing short of the television commercial where the dog is chanting, “bacon, bacon, bacon”.

Whistle was obsessed with getting the bacon that was down my shirt. He jumped in my lap and proceeded to stick his nose down my shirt. I was mortified as I could hear the two women saying, “Oh, how sweet. He loves you so much.” And I’m thinking, “Are you kidding me? He loves bacon!”

As the photographer tried to get Whistle to look toward the camera for the photo, Whistle was fixated on my chest. He was staring right at my chest with a look of sheer determination.

I just chuckled to myself and told the photographer not to worry and to just get the best shot he could. As Whistle and I made it back to our assigned table, I had to laugh at the situation. When you’re at your zenith, there’s nothing like a dog to give you a lesson in humility and reality.

The next day, I received an email from the New Mexico Business Weekly announcing the honorees and celebrating the event. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a photo of me with the two community leaders and Whistle is positioned next to me staring intensely at my chest. I had to chuckle once again.

I was so honored to be recognized as a “Woman of Influence” among my peers. And, I believe I am the luckiest girl in the world to have a service dog. Whistle provides me with the independence to get out into the world alone and he also makes each day an adventure and a lesson in what’s really important!

Barking Like A Dog

January 27, 2010 · Posted in Public Interaction, Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
barking dog

I don’t know about you, but I am starting to get Spring Fever. We just had over six inches of snow this past week in Santa Fe; however, I am already looking forward to the days of planting and the rewards of beautiful dessert flowers and fresh vegetables from the garden.

The other day, Franz, Whistle and I went to a local yard and garden store for their annual winter sale to buy some outdoor pots. We parked in the accessible parking space and as I was opening my van door, a man and his large St. Bernard dog strolled past our vehicle. Whistle was safely seatbelted on the back seat. He lept to his feet and barked like an untrained dog. I, of course, was shocked and appalled at his behavior and quickly commanded him to be “quiet.”

He immediately responded; however, the damage was done. My dressed service dog had barked at another dog in public! I was so embarrassed and asking myself, “How could such an intelligent, trained service dog like Whistle bark at a strange dog like that?”

Whistle and I are out in public almost every day and granted, this was a rare incident. However, it is still very concerning to me and I want to know if you’ve ever been in that situation before and what have you done to handle it.

Morgan, my retired service dog, never barked at other dogs. He simply ignored them whenever he was working. But Whistle, on the other hand, does pay attention to other dogs. I correct him but in the past, he has lunged toward another dog or forged incessantly in order to get closer to a strange dog.

He doesn’t do this every time he encounters another dog, but it happens enough to embarrass me and to make me a little uncomfortable about approaching other dogs. What is the protocol for meeting and greeting other dogs? How do you handle these canine situations? I can’t wait to hear your experiences and suggestions!