Service Animals: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Written by Tiffany Huggard-Lee for Day in Washington.

The use of service animals has been increasing, and as a result, service animals have been in the news a lot lately. Sometimes, this is a good thing, such as when the articles lead to an increased public awareness of the rights of service animal users, but unfortunately not all publicity is a good thing. One thing is certain though: no single type of accommodation used by people with disabilities has gotten this much attention in years. In light of this increased publicity, people with disabilities must consider how these images will affect the disability community as a whole. Service Dog Kain

Most people, if asked, would acknowledge that it is inappropriate to form an opinion of a minority group based on one or two media representations of that group. However, most people would also admit that seeing a minority group frequently portrayed in the media with a more or less consistent pattern of representation will cause them to form an opinion of that group based on the information presented. The media aren't always the cause of this representation either. The statements made by service animal users, their families and their legal representation to the media likewise influence the general public and can be as equally ludicrous as the often misinformed statements of the press. So, what has the new wave of service animals taught the general public about people with disabilities?

People with disabilities appear DEPENDENT.

This comes from the mistaken notion that any particular adaptive methodology or device can provide independence. While I'll go into the concepts of independence in more depth in a later post, saying that someone who does not have the use of a service animal readily available is not independent is simply laughable. For example:

Dogs can help you dress and undress, get you ready for bed, turn lights on and off, open doors, get the phone. They can give a person independence and dignity.

This would imply that a person that needs assistance in the tasks listed that does not have a dog perform those tasks is not independent. This is quite simply not true. However, if an employer has the opinion that a service animal is necessary for a person with a disability to be independent, they may be less likely to hire a person with a disability who doesn't have a service animal, mistakenly believing that person is incapable of functioning.

As an even more shocking example, take a look at the ACLU's statement in this recent news article about a 5 year old with cerebral palsy whose family wants her service dog to go to school with her:

“To force a 5-year-old girl with cerebral palsy to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director.

Also €œThe aide alone promotes dependence while learning to use the dog with the aide promotes independence, Stacy Fry said.

Let me be blunt. A 5 year old girl, regardless of disability status, is not independent by any definition. There is no service animal in the world that can make a 5 year old an independent person. Suggesting that the use or non-use of a service animal affects the independence of a small child is crediting service animals with a level of ability they simply do not have.

People with disabilities appear UNREASONABLE.

Service animal users have often presented themselves to the media as unreasonable and impossible to work with. A person claiming their vicious dog is a service animal is clearly unreasonable, they are jeopardizing the safety of the community. A person whose so-called service monkey runs loose in the lobby of a courthouse is unreasonable, the animal is obviously too poorly trained to be of any service. A person who demands access with a filthy service dog whose smell clears the room is unreasonable, they are causing completely avoidable distress to those around them. These cases are becoming more and more frequent, and the publicity they receive is equally concerning.

People with disabilities appear UNINFORMED.

When service animal users make outlandish and unsupported claims about the ability of their service animal it only makes this worse. For instance, in this quote, referring to service dogs for people with autism:

€œThe dogs actually help improve concrete thinking, focus and attention span for these children and adults.

I have read all the available research I could find on service dogs for people with autism. I have summarized the research here. There is absolutely no proof that the presence of an autism service dog for children improves any of these things listed above, and no research at all has been done on autism service dogs for adults. This statement is simply false.

Now, some people may read the above statement and not see anything unusual about it. Try this one:

€œUnlike other assistance dogs, which are trained to respond to commands, Taylor’s dogs must be trained to a higher level of intelligence because their autistic handlers may not be able to give hand signals or verbal commands.”

Taylor says his dogs can sense changes in people’s brainwaves. €œAccording to Taylor, service dogs are trained to focus and react to people's brainwaves. Rocko's brainwaves balance out Kevin's, and that's how Kevin gets stabilized physically and emotionally.

In both of these articles, a dog's ability to sense a person's brainwaves and to respond with other brainwaves to mitigate a disability are not even questioned. They are simply provided, both by the media and the families involved, as fact. I think most people would realize this is, quite simply, bull.

The general goal of the disability rights movement is to show that a person with a disability is fundamentally the same as a person without a disability, and can participate in most if not all of the same life activities with reasonable accommodation. If service animal users and people with disabilities are portrayed as unreasonable, uninformed and completely unable to function without the presence of an animal, people with disabilities no longer look like potential employees, customers, or friends. If the current trend in service animal use continues unchecked, and the media coverage we are seeing now keeps pace, this new and undesirable image of people with disabilities may become instilled in the general public and essentially negate the social progress the disability community has made in the past 20 years.

7 comments for “Service Animals: Too Much of a Good Thing?

  1. February 14, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    To learn more about Psychiatric Service Dogs please read my book, “Healing Companions:Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power To Transform Lives” which is the first book written about PSDs. The book includes compelling stories of veterans and others, a wealth of information and resources that will help you, a loved one or mental health professional learn more about how PSDs can transform people’s lives appropriately and ethically. Thanks so much. Warmly, Jane

  2. Joy van Veen
    February 14, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I am in full agreement with the article. As both a disabled veteran and a trainer of service dogs, particularly guide dogs; I have been appalled at some of the things I’ve rea or heard in person or in e-mails regarding service animals. Everytime someone behaves irresponsibly regarding service animals, it leaves an impression which other disabled people, with or without the assistance of service animals; must face.

    Please act responsibly and reasonably, and get your facts straight; if you will be using or training a service animal!

  3. Alex O'Connor
    February 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I believe with rights come responsibility. If I am allowed to take my Service Dog in public she has to be well groomed, well behaved, well trained, and working. So far we have met no resistance because I take my end of it very seriously.

  4. February 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

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  5. March 10, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks for sharing this blunt, yet accurately informative piece.
    I’m totally blind and have used Seeing Eye dogs as a means of independent travel for 15 years. I understand the responsibility that goes with the right to travel with these intelligent service animals, and take them seriously. I am also aware of some misconceptions others have regarding service animals in general, and take the opportunity to educate people whenever I have the chance.

    To educate responsibly, though, the information I share must be accurate.

    In light of educating responsibly, I agree that information being promoted by some people regarding service animals, in addition to “psychiatric service animals,” is pure fiction. Come on, are we really supposed to believe that dogs tune into and balance people’s brain waves? Only in the magical thinking of a preschooler does that occur.

    I know firsthand the power of the independence provided by a professionally trained service animal and know the mental roadblocks of some people I still encounter in today’s supposedly enlightened age. The Seeing Eye just celebrated its 80th anniversary in the United States. It is the oldest guide dog school in the world. In addition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, every state in the country has some law(s) protecting the rights of service animal users, granting them access to public services, buildings, and activities, just the same as anybody else.

    Those are facts. Please do not muddle people’s perceptions of these facts by putting out false information.

    Even though people have been traveling with Seeing Eye dogs for 80 years, there are still people who don’t understand the law and those of us who travel with these fine dogs have to educate, and sometimes litigate, to ensure our rights of access. Just as other users of other types of qualified service animals, we are hurt in our pursuit of accessibility by those who put out false information, or do not uphold their responsibilities when working with their service animals. Everybody needs to do their part, and do the right thing here.

    Thanks Day , for posting this article.

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