Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a 6-part series, “Fake Service Dogs, Real Problem.” (You can start at Part 1 here.)
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When I decided to adopt a dog, I originally wanted to train one for tracking and get certified with a canine partner for search and rescue.
Under the direction of my professor, we began temperament testing a number of dogs that possessed qualities of a working dog. What I didn’t know was that I was testing for a dog that would become my service animal.
My Path to a Service Dog
Throughout my life I have battled depression, anxiety and panic attacks. I was able to keep it under control with typical medication and therapy until I was 18. My psychological state got harder to manage when a very close friend tragically passed away.
Soon after, I left for college and starting learning about canine training and management. The introduction of this topic in my life gave me an outlet to focus. An influential professor suggested that I adopt a dog and train him for search and rescue. I adopted a year-and-a-half-old Beagle mix from Good Shepherd K9 Rescue in Schenectady, N.Y., named Lynal.
Lynal’s qualities were perfect for being a search and rescue dog as well as a service dog — plus he had been a rescue from a high-kill shelter in North Carolina. Immediately, Lynal grew very in tune with my emotional state and started following me around the house.
At this time, I started getting serious about my potential as a canine trainer and behaviorist, so I moved to Northern California and attended Bergin University of Canine Studies. While attending the college, I learned about assistance animals and how they help so many people. I trained two dogs that will most likely be placed as psychiatric service dogs with veterans.
While working with those dogs, I practiced some of the assistance dog training techniques on Lynal. He learned these service tasks much faster and was much more interested in the work than even those dogs bred at the college.
Not only did he perform the tasks faster and more efficiently, but he was alerting to my panic attacks and calmed me during them.
Psychiatric Service Dogs — Yes, They’re “Real”
It wasn’t long before I was looking up how to certify a psychiatric service dog and found the Psychiatric Service Dog Society. On this website I learned how to certify my dog and tasks that psychiatric service dogs perform for their handler.
I bought a vest and took the necessary steps to ensure he was a “real” service dog. He quickly learned that when the vest is on, he must be on his best behavior while doing his job.
Lynal and I went back to New York at the end of my second semester. Today I attend a SUNY Cobleskill, and Lynal joins me in all my classes. My confidence has skyrocketed since he started working as my service dog, and my depression is at an all-time low.
“Service Dog” Swindle
Unfortunately, growing number of people are strapping a service vest on their dog and calling it a service dog when it’s not. In case I am ever approached by a police officer and to calm the locals, I make sure to have a photo service dog ID as well as a written letter from a medical professional explaining that Lynal is medically necessary. Most people don’t ask about him since he is well behaved and has been properly trained.
I know for a fact that some people think I am a faker because I can walk and am not blind. When I am out in public, especially in a town where there are no service dog organizations, I sometimes get ridiculous reactions from people passing me.
Usually when those people see him, they act like they have never seen a dog before and Lynal is the most adorable, rarest animal they have ever laid their eyes on. I try to ignore them and continue on my way. Every once and a while, I will have someone try to distract him and call him by whistling or making a clicking sound with their mouth. I don’t know who is less amused by this: Lynal or me.
On rare occasion someone will come up to me and ask to pet him. I allow this if the setting is conducive for a proper greeting. For example, if the lunch lady wants to pet him or someone in a huge crowd needs his attention, I say, “He is working; sorry but you can’t.” Lynal is a special dog in that he really could care less about random people’s attention. He tolerates this attention and doesn’t welcome it. The only people he really cares about are the people he knows and loves — and when he sees them, his whole body comes alive and he starts wiggling. I bet his reaction toward strangers has something to do with his previous life in shelters.
Psychicatric Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states, “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” Those dogs are commonly known as emotional support dogs (ESAs), and as the federal legislation states, emotional support dogs are not service dogs.
Psychiatric service dogs (PSAs), by comparison, work for a handler who has a documented psychological disability that is being treated by a medical professional. These dogs have been trained in very specific tasks to offer benefit to people with disabilities.
Here is a quote from John Wodatch of the Disability Rights Section of the Office of Civil Rights, Justice Department: “The way we look at it is what the regulation says is that a service animal is an animal that’s trained to provide services for a person. So something that is just a pet is not.”
People who cunningly try to pass their dogs off as service dogs because they don’t want to leave them at home, or because this makes them “feel better,” are breaking the law, plain and simple.
The vast majority of dogs make their owners feel loved and “better,” but we can’t allow everyone who loves his or her dog into restaurants and grocery stores. The truth is, most dogs cannot handle being in a restaurant. Sitting quietly under a table or going on an escalator is a tough thing for them to learn and tolerate. So this would ruin the idea that service dogs are well behaved and trained — which would cause a backlash that could lead to new laws that eradicate service animals.
A Rewarding Experience
Today, Lynal and I are working toward search and rescue certification, competitive obedience titles, and canine good citizen certification. He not only helps me in public but gives me focus when I am having a difficult day with my disability.
If you have a disability, mental or otherwise, I highly suggest obtaining a service dog or training one yourself. Training a rescue dog that was once on death row to be a working animal is extremely rewarding.
I would do anything for Lynal; some people joke that I love him too much. I think that most people who have service animals are accused of this. Service dogs are more than just companions; they are helpers and often lifesavers.
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- Psychiatric Service Dog Society (PSDS). http://www.psychdog.org/faq.html
- “Revised ADA Requirements: Service Animals.” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm
- “What is the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support animal?” Service Dog Central. http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/76
- “Service Dog Tasks for Psychiatric Disabilities.” Joan Froling, trainer consultant, International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP). http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html