The 2012 September National Service Dog recognition month salutes in particular guide dogs and military working dogs. Established by celebrity Dick Van Patton as National Guide Dog Month, the theme was broadened to reflect changes in current definitions and concerns related to the category of helping animals. In federal law, as of March 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act was revised to change "service animal" to "service dog," allowing for limited application to miniature guide horses. Currently a Congressional bill is in committee for the change of military dog classification as "equipment" to "canine members of the Armed Forces," allowing for adoption upon retirement, valor decoration and other benefits of service.
The previous, loose definition of service animal under the ADA act resulted in fraud, physical harm caused by untrained and inappropriately designated "service animals" and public accommodation denial and/or embarrassment for disabled persons with a bona fide service animal. In 2008, it was reported that the manager of a Seattle Trader Joe's market fielded 300 incidents of patrons declaring right to access with self-declared service animals. The manager incurred insult and outrage when he legally questioned the status, allowed access, and then had to referee incidents with patrons caused by the animal while in the store. A 2009 San Francisco Gate article revealed the consequences to drivers and passengers on public transportation when riders with exotic animals such as snakes and aggressive dogs boarded buses declaring their animal companions were "service animals." Many states have developed their own ordinances and penalties for abuse of the public accommodation privilege intended for disabled persons.
No one is completely satisfied with the recently revised federal regulations. One concern is the "invisible disability" not addressed in legislation. Groups are lobbying for wider recognition of the need for including a mental health animal service category. Veterans are appealing to allow benefits covering service dogs in Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder therapy. The Michigan State University College of Law published a paper with five recommendations for improving the overall situation. Those include standardized training and credible certification for all service animals and trainers, as well as enforceable, definitive national regulations adopted by all states. Also at issue are pet owners who take advantage of the readily available vests, badges, gear and "certificates" available on the Internet, then effectively deny access to bona fide working animals. The most common violations are to claim a free open space in the passenger cabin of an airline or to gain access to public health regulated establishments such as restaurants. A category of "comfort" pets has displaced guide, hearing and signal animals by stealing the limited accommodations available. Standardized identification as required outside of the United States would help matters.
The category of "therapy" animal has become fuzzy through generalized use of the label. Therapy animals are not necessarily service animals. Certified therapy animals are usually owned by institutions, handled by specially trained staff, and are not the casual visiting pets seen in most convalescent facilities. Therapy animals are used in measured, goal directed medical applications. Search and rescue is another nonservice animal category covered by limited law for saving lives in disasters and emergencies. Like therapy dogs, they have people contact but do not provide ongoing support for an individual disabled person. Credentialed therapy animals and certified search-and-rescue dogs are given access to specific public accommodation by law to enable travel to facilities and incidents.-
It is a cruel irony that while science proves increasing benefits of the human-animal bond, thoughtless humans deny others access for healing and independence with trained service, therapy and working animals. These loyal, self-sacrificing animals are not pets except when off duty. They are guide, hearing-, signal- and function-trained service workers. Another goal of this year's recognition of service dogs is the private funding of a National Monument to honor Military Working Dogs, elevating animals to an unprecedented status. God bless them, every one.
- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help "Keep Tahoe Kind". Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.