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Service Dog Devaluation

Bubba.jpg With each passing decade, the respect with which US society views service dogs and their handlers sadly steadily declines. This poses increased problems for these animals and their handlers and those around them. Recently I saw something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime: an article describing an attack of a guide dog walking with her legally blind owner/handler by owned free-roaming pet dogs.  Even given all the possible sources of misinformation in such reports, this attack points out the vulnerability of the growing service animal population, to say nothing of those who rely on these animals for their own well-being.

Until relatively recently, the bulk of the service dogs provided services for the physically impaired that those people could not provide for themselves. Traditionally these animals were the result of a stringent 2-part process. First came purpose-oriented breeding, selection processes and training programs that took an average 18-months to 2 years to complete. Then prospective recipients were chosen and matched with dogs and then those people were trained to properly handle and care for their animals. The goal was to ensure the dog’s as well as the handler’s welfare. If the recipient was unable to fulfill some of the dog’s physical and mental health requirements, a caregiver assumed this responsibility. Identifying and meeting all of these canine and human needs represented a coordinated effort by breeders, trainers, physicians, veterinarians and other human and canine caregivers as well as the dog and handler. It was a One Health approach.

At that time, people gave service animals the same respect as top-notch working dogs in other areas. While people of all ages might admire the dogs’ intelligence, special abilities, and seemingly unflappable temperaments, they wouldn’t interfere with these animals when they were working. They recognized that such interference was disrespectful and possibly could create an unwanted and even dangerous distraction for the dog or handler.

The community also recognized and respected these service dogs because of the their impeccable behavior in settings otherwise closed to animals, and the obvious quality working bond between them and their handlers. Their value to their handlers also put helping to maintain the welfare of these human-canine teams on the radar of neighbors, local law enforcement, and emergency services.

But as articles like the one mentioned above remind us, that was then and this is now.

Today an addition to poorly behaved free-roaming pets and their clueless owners, the once respected term service dog is being degraded. An influx of poorly selected and poorly trained animals plus pet dogs with fake credentials taint the image of all. Instead of representing the one segment of the canine population we could count on for good behavior, some of these animals represent the worst nightmare for those working in the public sector and law enforcement. Have one bad experience with one of these animals leaping on people in a crowded bus, pooping in a restaurant, or lunging at people or other dogs at the local park and “service dog” takes on a completely different meaning.

Further contributing to this problem, human expectations imposed on service dogs also have changed dramatically. This takes several forms. Among these are those animals desired by people whose disabilities belong to a wide range of conditions that affect mood, decision-making, impulse control or other mental functions. Service dogs who provide these services often are referred to as psychiatric service dogs. Because the range of disabilities and how they manifest in a particular individual may vary considerably, preparing dogs for this responsibility doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all approach. These animals also require careful selection and highly specialized training overseen by those knowledgeable in the limitations of the animal as well as the handler. Those teaching these people how to interact properly with their service animals need that same human and canine knowledge. And as with dogs assisting those with physical disabilities, these animals also daily need free time away from their charges during which  they can relax and enjoy themselves.

Emotional support animals (ESA) make up another segment of the new service dog population. The Michigan State University Animal Legal and Historical Center  defines an emotional support animal as … an animal (typically a dog or cat though this can include other species) that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. In other words, an ESA is what many people might call a pet. That is, a dog (or other animal) who provides all those emotional benefits that make all the responsibilities of having an animal worthwhile. The only difference is that owners of canine ESAs want to take their animals many places where pet dogs can’t go. But like pet dogs, some canine ESAs may not represent the result of the coordinated time- and energy-consuming effort that characterizes the selection, training, and oversight seen in the development of quality service dogs. Consequently, the ESA dog’s behavior and owner’s ability to properly handle the dog is unknown until proven otherwise. If both are exemplary in settings normally closed to dogs, the public’s view of all service dogs will be enhanced. If not, unfortunately the ESA dog’s behavior or handler’s inability to handle the dog will undermine the credibility and public regard for all service animals, and especially that of human-psychiatric service dog teams.

Regardless of a service dogs’ legitimacy, the respect with which the public treats these human-canine pairs no longer is a given. The combination of public ignorance of normal dog let alone well-trained service dog behavior, proliferation of both legitimate and faux service dogs for people with an increasing range of disabilities, lack of quality control regarding training, poorly worded laws that vary from state to state, and unreliable enforcement of those laws leaves legitimate and fake service dogs and their handlers vulnerable.

But how to address this to protect handler and dog from harm: that’s the question.

After giving this a great deal of thought I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it’s up to the service dog’s handler or that person’s caregiver to assume the protector role. I see no way (and will gladly accept evidence that disproves this) that dogs can be trained to simultaneously physically protect themselves and their handlers from all outside threats in addition to providing specialize services like guiding them around obstructions their handlers cannot see, alerting them to sounds their handlers cannot hear, retrieving objects critical to the handler’s health, physically supporting the physically unstable, monitoring the often subtle physiological changes associated with hypoglycemia or potential seizures, or responding to the fluctuating and sometimes unpredictable needs of those who are mentally and emotionally fragile.

These two kinds of demands strike me as mutually exclusive given what I know about canine behavior and physiology. Physically protecting themselves and their handlers from other dogs or people who might pose a danger to them regardless of the environment demands that the dog focus on the environment and display appropriate offensive or defensive behavior. On the other hand, fulfilling the specialized needs of those whose disabilities require that the dog focus on the handler make such an all-inclusive outward focus impossible . While some (very few) dogs might be able to assume this dual role if carefully selected and rigorously trained, I suspect that the chronic stress associated with these conflicting demands ultimately would overwhelm the dog’s health and behavior. In that case, during the considerable time it would take to locate and train another dog able of fulfill such all-inclusive demands, the handler would feel more vulnerable than ever.

There are many situations related to human-animal interactions for which no right answers or solutions exist given the conflicting demands of the humans and animals involved. I see examples of this in my work all the time. But with commitment from of all those involved, workable compromises may be reached that benefit the human-canine team. Nonetheless and in spite of the fact that I tend to be so optimistic that some of my friends make fun of me, I see no reason for optimism regarding any kind of reliable solution to this multi-faceted problem. All that reverberates in my head is an echo of Caveat emptor:  Let the human-service dog team beware. I find that more tragic than words can describe.


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