Service Dog Abuse or Abuse of a “Service Dog”?

September 21, 2015

The other week I was talking to a dog parent who informed me that her dog had just been certified as a service dog based on her allergy to gluten.

Here’s what she did.  First, she got a boiler plate letter from a doctor stating that she had been under this doctor’s care and that the doctor was both familiar with the history of the patient and the “functional limitations imposed” by the disability (her allergy to gluton) and that she met the definition of someone with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  The letter stated, “this condition causes her severe anxiety. In order to help alleviate these difficulties, and to enhance her ability to live independently, Ms. XXX uses a service animal, [Dog’s name here], which is individually trained to perform tasks which mitigate her disability, including alerting her to her body’s reactions and providing her relief from the related anxiety.”  Armed with this letter, she took the dog to the San Francisco Animal Care and Control which dutifully issued her a service dog letter and tag.  Which means, of course, you can expect to see this dog at a restaurant, on a plane, in a supermarket, wherever her parent decides to take her.

I want to be fair to the folks at San Francisco Animal Care and Control – it’s pretty clear that they had questions about the ability of this dog to address the anxiety caused by the owner’s gluten allergy (Did I fail to mention that at the time she got the letter the owner had been with the dog about 5 weeks, had gotten the dog from a rescue group, and that the dog was not trained in any manner to detect gluten?) but they don’t have the legal authority to question a doctor’s letter, and presto – a new service dog is born.

Ok, as much as I really want to make Splash a service dog – I mean, she already goes to bars, ice rinks, and anywhere else I can sneak a 125 pound dog into – I’ve never gotten the nerve to actually do it.  I mean I have lots of stress and anxiety (come on I have 4 teenage kids at home) but it always seemed that this would be gaming the system.

This isn’t the first time we’ve written about this problem and we’ve been supported by others, and now the folks at the Tufts University have gotten into the fray.  While the folks at Tufts agree that the potential for abuse of the service dog classification is ripe, and that this abuse undermines the real service dogs and the people who need them, they add yet another twist. They maintain that, unlike trained service dogs who are equipped to deal with the wide range of circumstances and stimuli that humans are bombarded with every day, non-trained “service” dogs are not so equipped.  So while sitting in a restaurant enjoying the sumptuous aroma from the kitchen might be great for us and not an issue for a trained service dog, these same smells might be driving an untrained dog crazy!  So while you might be claiming you need a dog to reduce your stress and anxiety level, you might very well be adding a whole lot of stress and anxiety to your dog.

So what does all this mean? First, maybe it is time for doctors to stop issuing the letters that get us into this predicament to start. Second, maybe there should be some changes so that the agencies issuing the service dog tags might be in a position to actually evaluate the claim of the person and the training of the dog. Third, and perhaps most important, if you think you need a service dog because of your stress and anxiety please get one – but please get a trained service dog who can actually assist you in addressing your stress and anxiety without creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for the dog.

Thanks for reading!

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