Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States

Author of the book "Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others," 2nd edition published by Dogwise Publishing. Canine Behavior Series at

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Service/Assistance Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Therapy Dogs, Access Rights

People are really muddying the waters on the emotional support dog issue. Landlords seem to be the toughest sell, and yet that is the right a psychiatric patient specifically SHOULD have: to keep a companion animal in the residence.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says the person can be reqiuired to remove the dog if the dog's behavior is disruptive to the function of the place. A widely used example is a dog barking in a theatre during a performance can be required to be removed. The disabled handler of the dog is liable for any damages. It seems that a landlord could require the person to move the dog out of there if problems with noise, mess, damage, or threatening behavior to other tenants occurs.The dog being kept for emotional support needs to be suited to the housing facilities. That's an unpopular notion in this apartment and condo age.

Public access rights are something else entirely. Just because you have a prescription that provides for the dog to live with you doesn't mean you need or should be allowed to have the dog go everywhere with you. Dogs provide emotional benefits either way. So do other companion animals, for that matter. One of the most widely cited studies was done with parakeets (budgies?).

One of the stories in the article is particularly troubling. When someone's emotional/mental problem is the inability to control anger, is that person suited to work a dog around the public? Service dogs MUST be under control. How can a person who cannot control his or own behavior control that of the dog?

You don't have to be able to "manhandle" a dog physically, but you do have to be able to give the dog direction so that as a team you are not a danger to others, and you don't interfere with the business of a place. Either party in a dispute in a public place can call the police. It does not require making a disruptive scene.

As a store manager in my checkered past, I had a cranky old customer swear that my assistant had short-changed him. That was highly unlikely, but I would have given him the money to get him and his loud mouth out of the store.

My giving the guy the money was unacceptable to my assistant, however, because he was a careful and honorable person and because you could have cut the testosterone in the air with a knife. So, I called the police and an officer came out and quietly and patiently explained to the one who would not leave that he didn't have the right to stay in a crowded store and loudly proclaim to all the other customers about his grievance. He was told if we came up long on cash at the end of the day, we would contact him and he'd get the five dollars he claimed he'd been shorted from a $20 bill.

So, how is that disabled people get away with making nasty scenes? Yes, they can quietly stay there and call police (viva la cell phone) and wait for the officer to come and take a report. A courteous, low-volume mention to the business proprietor of that intention will likely eliminate the need for it.

My own disability is physical, my dog is courteous, I don't behave defensively, and any questions I've had have been extremely polite--makes me get misty-eyed how well my princess-dog and I are treated by strangers. Truthfully, though, if businesses could get away with just denying access to service dogs, they would. Especially big corporations (who control so much of our daily world now) would just have a policy against ALL dogs, period. A few run-ins with the Department of Justice, and they establish a policy to treat disabled people and their dogs with the utmost courtesy. The pioneers who have gone before me have cleared the way, and I'm grateful to them. Because they have EDUCATED, not just sued, members of the public who are not going by "corporate policy" are very accepting of my dog, too.

The pioneers are furious at the fakers, and I'm frightened by the fakers. I fear they are going to cause me to lose the right I need to have my dog's help. I fear they are going to make people so suspicious that going anywhere will be a huge ordeal for me. Currently I don't take my dog when I go to restaurants, and my health prevents me from traveling. The restaurant thing needs to come soon. I'm getting by with hubby's help, but it's not always enough. I'm told that the biggest problem with fraud is happening in travel.

And that leads to another issue that is contributing to this fakery, which is how dogs fare on airplanes. They need to all be cared for safely and be where their owners can monitor them, not just service dogs. Safety includes safety from attack by other dogs, though, so having too many crowded together would be asking for trouble. There have to be safe arrangements for dogs who are not able to handle that, too.

Perhaps airlines could deal with problem dog owners the way utility companies do. Utility companies get attorneys, and the post office cuts off mail service even before a carrier is bitten. Besides suing you (or billing your credit card!) for damages, perhaps the airline could put you and/or your dog off in some town you had not planned to visit. Enforcement with teeth, so to speak.

The world is changing when it comes to dogs, with lots of growing pains. In many ways, the service dogs and the volunteer therapy dogs are carrying the banners. I'm part of both groups, and it saddens me whenever anyone tarnishes the trust we've built with the public.