Further thoughts about service dogs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:

Further thoughts about service dogs
Commentary by Merritt Clifton

In November 1993, when the use of service dogs other than to
guide the blind was still quite new to most of the public, ANIMAL
PEOPLE devoted a cover feature to the legal and philosophical issues
involved, including the perspectives of leading figures in the
animal rights movement as to whether training dogs for human service
constitutes exploitation. We followed up several times, until the
precedents recognizing the use of hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs,
and various other now common uses of service dogs appeared to be
clearly established, and ethical objections to the use of service
dogs were no longer commonly voiced.

The San Francisco SPCA hearing dog program, 1978-2008,
introduced both the use of hearing dogs and the now routine
retraining of shelter dogs to perform service. Eventually many
specialized hearing dog programs emerged, and the SF/SPCA program
was dropped as redundant. Yet more shelter dogs than ever are now
trained for service
But trends have developed which jeopardize the service dog concept.
One is a tendency by many people to blur the distinction
between a “service” animal and a “therapy” animal.
The most essential difference is that a “service” animal is
on the job of assisting a particular human in need 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, without days off. The service animal is of
necessity extensively trained. This includes training in when to
take the initiative, doing something extraordinary in a crisis
without awaiting a command.
Though there are service animals other than dogs, only dogs
have adapted successfully to the demands of service in significant
Therapy animals may also be extensively trained, and may
also be very hard-working, but the animal who visits hospitals and
nursing homes is not on the job 24/7, and is not expected to take
the initiative when a particular person is unconscious, having a
stroke or seizure, unaware of a fire or other special danger, or
otherwise at extreme risk.
The “service” title has in recent years been extensively
misued by people who seek special privileges for their pets by
claiming the animals have a therapeutic roles, independent of any
association with a medically recognized program. Often the animals
involved are not dogs, and some are species much more difficult to
accommodate in public places, including miniature horses, goats,
and in one case, a python. This has led to much litigation.
The Department of Justice in 2008 proposed to narrow the
definition of “service animal” to exclude wildlife, reptiles,
rabbits, farm animals, amphibians, ferrets, and rodents. “The
guidelines also would have eliminated as service animals those whose
sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy,
companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional
well-being,” summarized Seattle Times staff reporter Nancy Bartley.
More than 4,500 people protested.
The Barack Obama adminstration suspended the rulemaking
process until after the appointment of a new assistant U.S. attorney
general to handle civil rights matters. This was done on October 7,
2009. “We are now in the process of reviewing the proposed
regulations and public comments,” Department of Justice spokesperson
Alejandro Miyar told Bartley in late October. “We anticipate that we
will issue final rules this year.”
A second trend of increasing concern is the use of pit bull
terriers and Rottweilers–like Bronson–as service animals.
Certainly these dogs can be trained to perform service, and can
excel in situations requiring strength and courage.
ANIMAL PEOPLE noted in a May 1996 cover feature that pit
bulls and Rottweilers appeared to be as disproportionately
represented in performing heroic acts of service to humans as in
killing and maiming humans. Unfortunately, reported instances of
pit bulls and Rottweilers killing and maiming humans then occurred
about 25 times more often than reported examples of heroism. That
was when pit bulls and Rottweilers together constituted less than 2%
of the U.S. dog population. Today pit bulls and Rottweilers are
together about 6% of the U.S. dog population, and the ratio of
reported deadly and disfiguring attacks to reported life-saving
incidents has risen to 59-to-one.
People who train pit bulls and Rottweilers for service roles
typically imagine that this will help to improve the image of these
breeds, leading to more of them being adopted. Yet people who need
service dogs, including to cope with high-stress situations, are
inherently less able than most others to control a dog if any
dangerous behavior occurs. Purported “service” pit bulls and
Rottweilers have run amok, and the more these breeds are put into
roles requiring absolutely perfect self-discipline, the more such
incidents are likely to occur.
Already apprehensive about admitting service dogs to the
premises for which they are responsible, landlords, bus operators,
storekeepers, restauranteurs and school administrators have even
more reason to be apprehensive when the dogs are breeds that are
responsible for approximately 75% of all lethal and disfiguring
The public also has cause to be uneasy about being subjected
to the presence of dogs of breeds that have killed or maimed nearly
2,000 people in the past 26 years.
The bottom line may be that a service animal-of any breed or
species-is not meant to be a walking advertisement for anything. “A
service animal should be almost invisible,” Delta Society
spokesperson JoAnn Turnbull told Bartley of the Seattle Times. “If
you are eating at a restaurant, you shouldn’t know a service animal
is there.”
Putting a service animal into the role of ambassador is
subjecting the service animal to a second high-stress job, on top of
the first, and is inherently interfering with the goal of enabling
the person whom the animal assists to lead an otherwise normal life.

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