January 21, 2016

Letter to the Editor: Phony service animals misused on campus


By Aaron Spalding–

Every time you try and do something nice, someone will most likely take advantage of it. This is especially true for service dogs and their public access rights. A handful of students see people with legit service animals, and in return think they can buy a vest online or get a note from their counselor and pass their pet off as one of these highly trained and specialized animals.

Although they’re committing a crime by doing this, many are failing to see the harm in it. Personnel at U of L have their hands tied as well, as they can only ask questions like, “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Unfortunately, the one thing they’re not allowed to ask for is paperwork. They can only take a person at their word, which leads to more and more abuse of the system.

Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disability Act and are required to meet specific and strict qualifications in return for the privileges granted to them. First, a service dog is considered a “Medical Assistive Device”—much the same as a wheelchair or oxygen tank is. They require a prescription from a licensed medical doctor to mitigate a specific disability of their handler. Additionally, service dogs are task-trained to mitigate specific aspects of their handler’s mental or physical disability.

Basic obedience commands do not meet the criteria of a mitigating task, nor does a therapeutic or companion dog whose presence helps to calm your anxiety or cheer up your depression. These dogs are mistakingly referred to as “therapy dogs” but are actually ESAs, or emotional support animals. They’re helpful and have their own rights afforded to them, but it’s important to note that they are simply not service dogs and do not have any public access rights. Outside of housing and planes, ESA’s cannot go anywhere a pet cannot normally go.

Legit service dogs typically go through two to three years of highly specialized training and certifications in order to ensure they will behave in any situation and will assist their handler when the time arises. A good example of this training at work are the guide dogs who led their owners to safety when the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Organizations such as Puppies Behind Bars, Warrior Canine Connection and Wilderwood Service Dogs train their animals to standards set out by certifying agencies such as Assistance Dogs International, the American Red Cross and the American Kennel Club. They do this to not only recognize that the animal has met a level of training, but also to ensure the recipient of their animal has a quality product that can assist them when the time comes.

If you want or feel that a service dog can help you with a disability, I highly recommend reaching out to a qualified agency to get one trained for you. I’m more than willing to assist in this and have left my contact info at the Disability Resource Center and Veteran’s Affairs Office for this purpose. Do not think it’s okay to order a vest online, throw it on your puppy and tell everyone it’s a service dog. The faculty may not be able to tell you otherwise, but you are being noticed by people like myself. We are a relatively small community, and we will eventually call you out.

It’s as simple as doing the right thing, and taking the necessary steps to ensure your animal is what you say it is. Otherwise you run the risk of creating an environment where service dogs are not allowed and those with legit needs and properly trained animals are prevented access. Lastly, let me ask you this: Do you think it’s right to park in a handicap spot without a tag? I didn’t think so.

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