Editor’s Note: This interview is Part 5 of a 6-part series, “Fake Service Dogs, Real Problem.” (You can start at Part 1 here.)
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Dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago. Humans have a long history of working closely with animals. These animals provide transportation, strength for difficult tasks and protection. Without them we would not have been able to survive harsh climates, keep our families safe or get where we wanted to go.
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In modern times, as humans have moved away from an agrarian existence, the role of animals has changed. They are most often kept for companionship, although some are used for sport, and the sheer joy that animals bring to our lives.
After World War I the first guide dog training school was established in Germany. The trainers there worked with canines to assist soldiers blinded in combat. This was a radical idea at the time, and people were slow to accept the idea of animals in public spaces. But as time went by, public sentiment turned in favor of these hard-working animals.
In the United States, special laws have been enacted to protect the rights of people with disabilities who wish to use a service dog to go to restaurants, take public transportation and enter shops. These laws also protect the restaurant owners and other people who are bound by public health laws.
Q&A With a Guide Dog Trainer
Carrie Treggett-Skym is a trainer for Guide Dogs for the Blind. She is the Pacific Northwest field manager and has reached the Master Instructor level after many years of training service dogs. I interviewed her to help clarify some of the problems that arise when people use untrained service animals in order to get their pets into restaurants or onto public transportation. People often go as far as to use fraudulent service documents, easily obtained now online for a fee.
Carrie, how long have you been a guide dog trainer?
I began my career at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in 1996 in the training department with basic dog training skills. After a year of working in the kennels as an instructor assistant, I worked my way through a three-year apprenticeship where GDB taught me how to train guides, work with the visually impaired, basic O&M skills and health-related issues surrounding our client base.
At the end of my apprenticeship in 2000 I had to take the California State Board exam for dog guide instructors and received my license. I am required by the state to maintain the license and attend at least eight hours of continuing education each year.
After being licensed for five years I became a Master Instructor and eventually made a lateral departmental move to be the Pacific Northwest graduate field manager. In this position my focus shifted from dog training to assisting our clients support.
Do you train guide dogs for people other than those who are visually impaired? Dogs for the deaf, etc.
No, GDB was originally founded to assist WWII veterans, and our services are offered free and we receive no government funding.
What are your thoughts about service animals that are not dogs?
I think there is a place for non-dog service animals. The problem is that this field is not regulated and many animals are not well behaved, and some individuals without need take advantage of the system. This in turn has a trickle-down effect that impacts the clients I work with, who have to educate and in some cases fight for their right to be allowed into places.
Having non-dog service animals makes it difficult for business owners to determine who has a legitimate need since they should not ask what is the person’s disability but they can ask what [the animal is] trained to do.
Do you see emotional support animals as being legitimate service animals, e.g., emotional support dogs/animals for war veterans returning from Iraq with PTSD?
I do approve of emotional support dogs, but feel they should be trained for a specific task. In my opinion, public education and a governing agency would be the best way to protect consumers and business owners. Currently a person can buy a vest for their dog online that says they are a service animal, and the individual does not need to show proof. These businesses [that sell the therapy dog vests] are not breaking any laws, but they are hurting the individuals and integrity of legitimate organizations and persons with disabilities.
What is the biggest problem for people with service dogs?
Lack of public education and being denied access because of it. At Guide Dogs for the Blind we try to educate and assist our client so they can do the same in their community. [See GDB’s access and etiquette tips.]
Do you think there should be a centralized certification process for service dogs?
My personal stance is yes. GDB is governed by the State of California as well as the International Guide Dog Federation, which has strict standards for training of dogs, clients and facilities.
What do you think of people who fake service dog certification? How does this cause problems for you?
I think people who fake service dog certification don’t truly understand the value, importance and necessity service dogs play in [disabled people’s] lives. People who are faking are usually just trying to do it to take their dogs with them or avoid paying an additional charge. Being a responsible pet owner to me means having integrity for service animals and not taking advantage of loopholes in the system.
- “More Than Man’s Best Friend.” Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell. Archaeology Magazine. October 2010. http://www.archaeology.org/1009/dogs/
- “Assistance Dogs: Learning New Tricks for Centuries.” Jennie Cohen. History.com. http://www.history.com/news/assistance-dogs-learning-new-tricks-for-centuries
- “Guide Dogs for the Blind’s History.” Guide Dogs for the Blind. http://www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer?pagename=about_overview_history
- International Guide Dog Federation. http://www.igdf.org.uk/