Recently there has been a lot of press about fake service dogs. Articles are written about how to spot a fake dog. What can you do if you see someone with a fake dog. How easy it is to fake that your dog is a service dog. It has become something of a cause de jour. The only problem is, that can make things so much harder for people who have a legitimate need and a trained dog assistant. Especially for people who do not look all that disabled. Here’s a news flash: service dogs are not just for people who have visual impairments any more. They can be trained to help with everything from physical mobility issues to PTSD.
I have had severe anxiety my entire life. Pair that with ADHD and a tendency towards panic disorders and I can be one spastic mess of a human if I am left untreated. I have tried many medications over the years, from Ritalin to anti-depressants. Probably the worst experience was with Zanax. My hyperactivity means that’s that drugs are pushed through my system much faster than the norm, and that drug hit me like a sledge hammer. I felt like I was in a waking dream every moment I was on it. I’ve self-medicated with smoking and gambling. Both which caused issues much more severe than the original problem.
Unlike many people, I am not self-diagnosed. I have been under the care of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and counselors. This has been an on-going issue since I can remember. I was severely injured a couple of times as a child and I hid the injuries from my parents because I was so worried about how they would react. Bear in mind, my parents never laid a hand on me. I had no rational basis for this fear. It is part of my disorder.
When we adopted Ray something funny happened. He was able to sense when I was getting anxious and he would solicit my attention to break the cycle of panic. And it worked. I had never experienced that ability to stop my feelings from escalating. I came to depend on his talent to read my emotions, my breathing, and my anxiety and to react appropriately to help me cope. When we traveled to South Dakota together to attend the signing of the anti-bsl bill I learned that he was able to even help me with the anxiety of flying. All without being trained. Ray was NOT a service dog, but he had the instincts that would have made him an amazing one if he’d been trained. Natural dog behaviors do not make a dog a service dog. They must be trained to complete tasks on cue in order to meet the legal definition of an assistance dog.
When Ray died, I realized that I not only had lost my heart dog, I had lost someone who had helped me function normally. That loss was so profound, I found myself back in counseling, trying to make sense of why my grief was so paralyzing. It was my counselor who first suggested that what Ray had provided on his own could be duplicated by a trained service dog. She actually wrote me a prescription for a service dog, something that is not a requirement, but which has proven to be beneficial more than once.
We adopted Bubba G specifically to train as a service dog. When I reached out to Coloradogs I was looking for a large, calm, easily trained, highly motivated dog who did not have any major dog aggression issues. The rescue suggested Bubs, and fellow Vicktory mom Rachel volunteered to take him on outings to see how he did in public and the workplace. He passed with flying colors. Based on her recommendations, I adopted Bubba sight unseen. The day after he came home he was evaluated by Sherry Woodward to see if he had the right demeanor for service dog work. That was also the day he met his trainer Keith Hightower.
Bubba and I went through group and individual training to teach him what he needed to know to help me with my issues. He is a natural although some skills came harder than others. We worked on training for about 18 months before he got to where he needed to be for service dog status. I came to depend on him so much, that it was a real issue when I started a new job in a new town and had not yet been approved to have him at work with me. The six months I went to work without him were nerve wracking and exhausting. Thankfully he was eventually able to come to work and he makes every day so much easier for me.
Yesterday we were walking over to McDonalds for lunch. Bubba was wearing his service dog vest which I generally only put on him when we are going in somewhere new (fyi vests are NOT required on service dogs but having them can stop a lot of hassle). An older couple walked into the building right before us. The man started to hold the door for us when his wife (or whatever she was) said something I couldn’t hear, and he let the door close in my face. I opened the door and told Bubba to enter and the woman spins on her heels, barging past us, saying loud enough to make sure I could hear “I’m not going to eat any place that allows a dog in the building” and then she made eye contact with me and spit out “fake service dog” before leaving the building. Wow….
I can understand the frustration with fake service dogs. I’ve been in Walmart when small yappy dogs are dragging their people around and snapping at others. But if you see someone with a dog who is obviously well-trained, with perfect public access manners, you cannot assume it isn’t a necessary accommodation for his or her handler. And frankly, it isn’t any of your business. It is up to an individual business to challenge the handler if they think something is wrong. And they can only ask if that is a service dog and what has he been trained to do. If the handler answers those questions and the dog is behaving appropriately, the dog must be allowed anywhere the general public is able to go. If a dog is barking, soiling or marking, or acting aggressively a business has every right to ask the handler to remove the dog.
Bubba is my best buddy. But even more importantly, he allows me to feel normal in a world that can be overwhelming. We have been incredibly lucky in most of our public interactions, but it only takes one bad experience to increase my anxiety going forward. Please think before you accuse someone of having a fake service dog.