By Paige Nelson
Pets provide comfort and companionship in most households, but for Bill Weaver, his dog is much more than just a friend. Daily tasks like getting dressed, opening drawers or picking up dropped items would be nearly impossible for him if it weren’t for his service dog, Dale.
In 1989, Weaver fell asleep at the wheel while he was driving home from work and crashed into a tree, only two blocks away from his house. The accident caused severe spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down and caused complete paralysis in his hands.
“My lack of hands was really frustrating to me because I literally couldn’t pick anything up,” Weaver said. “I would get angry, sad, mad and sometimes cry. I dealt with it for all those years I didn’t have a dog.”
Weaver said Dale goes everywhere with him and is by his side almost all the time, assisting him with tasks he isn’t physically able to do himself.
“I can accidentally drop a pencil during a meeting and I don’t even have to give him a command,” Weaver said. “He’ll be in a dead sleep, hear the pencil drop and set it back in my lap.”
Service dogs are specifically trained to help people, like Weaver, who have disabilities, including visual difficulties, hearing impairments, mental illness and seizures.
Service dog owner Robin Smith said he “lived in cocoon” before he received his dog, Chauncey, in 2007. Smith was exposed to a rare spore on an archeological dig 18 years ago that initially infected his lungs and eventually disseminated into his blood stream, causing paralysis from the waist down.
“I had concerns about caring for a dog,” Smith said. “There’s a lot to consider when you have a hard time taking care of yourself.”
Non-profit service dog organizations like Canine Companions for Independence and Paws’itive Teams invest countless hours and funds into training the dogs to help disabled people function in their regular day-to-day lives.
Service dog training and match-making
Carolyn Peters, who volunteers as a trainer at Paws’itive Teams, said finding a dog with the right attitude and abilities is difficult.
Peters said only about 75 percent of dogs make it through the service dog certification course. Since training a dog at Paws’itive Teams is solely dependent on volunteers and sponsor money, trainers try to make the decision on whether the dog is cut out for work as soon as possible.
A dog must have an outstanding medical history and a great temperament to be considered for placement. If a dog has to undergo surgery while training or displays bad behavior, it may be disqualified from the program. Training is rigorous and a serious matter, and a trainer doesn’t use the dog to figure out questions like “can I give my dog corn” during its strict training process.
“It’s tough because the trainer doesn’t want that sense of failure like they did something wrong,” Peters said.
Co-owner of Paws’itive Teams Carol Davis said the two years it takes to train a service dog, including food, vet bills and licensing, can add up to $30,000 or more. Private funding from sponsors helps alleviate training costs and allows the organization to match a dog with a handler for free.
Davis said Paws’itive Teams does not match dogs with handlers based on when they turn in their application. The organization waits until they have the right match for a person, based on the availability of dogs and whether their personalities are compatible.
After two years, the dog inevitably forms a bond with its trainer. After a match is made, the dog and handler must go through a six-month period of transition training to ease the dog into its new home and away from its trainer.
“It was a bonding process as well as an educational process for both the dog and me,” Smith said. “The dog already knew what he was supposed to do, it was just a matter of teaching me.”
The gray area of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Davis said a service dog is permitted to accompany their disabled owner everywhere members of the public are allowed, with a few exceptions on a case by case basis such as emergency rooms, churches and federal courts.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for people with physical or mental impairments. The ADA also states that the “work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
California state law states any person who knowingly or fraudulently represents themselves to be the owner or trainer of a service dog will receive a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.
The problem is the law is nearly impossible to enforce.
Peters said the American Disability Institute doesn’t require service dogs to pass a national test or certification program. Animals aren’t required to wear a specific color, vest or harness to identify them as a service animal either.
“We encourage people that apply, even if we don’t have a dog for them, to go through a reputable ADI certification organization because there are too many dogs out there that aren’t certified,” Peters said.
Under the ADA, business owners are only permitted to ask if the service dog is required because of a disability and what the dog is trained to do to mitigate the disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful for a business owner to require the handler to show medical proof of a disability or even some form of certification.
After a business owner asks a handler those two questions, they are essentially unarmed to try and protect their business. The owner does not have many options, except to allow the dog to be in the establishment or call the authorities if the dog is acting inappropriate.
Peters said she thinks more people are intimidated to ask because they’re afraid of being accused of discrimination or worse, being sued. Regardless of the legitimacy of the service dog, the handler’s answer to the questions must be taken at face value or the business owner runs the risk of a lawsuit.
“A lot of dogs aren’t well trained and they’re unruly,” Weaver said. “It poorly affects those folks who have legitimate service dogs and legitimate needs. It taints the professionalism of service dogs and that’s the most disheartening aspect.”
Blurring the line between ‘pet’ and ‘service animal’
Davis said given all the time and money invested into training the dogs, some people are exploiting loopholes in the ADA by pretending their pets are service animals.
Service dog vests and I.D. tags can be purchased online on websites like activedogs.com, servicedogvest.com or ldsleather.com. Some websites even offer ‘identification packages’ that can help the owner create the illusion that their dog is a real service animal.
Smith said he lives in a no-pets apartment complex and regularly sees a woman with a Chihuahua wearing a fake service dog vest. He said it’s not his place to say anything, but he sent the ADA to his apartment manager in the hopes of preventing future abuse of the regulation.
“She loves the dog and I respect that, but it’s not a service animal,” Smith said. “It bothers me that people abuse the law like that for their own personal gain. It’s an abuse of a privilege.”
Smith said he personally feels the loopholes in the ADA need to be addressed and the only alternative is to certify the animal.
Co-owner of LDS Leather Karen Bredehoeft said people can legally purchase service dog gear online, but it is illegal for them to pretend to be disabled or that their pet is a service animal.
“I wish the legislators of this country would pass a law preventing people from taking advantage of the ADA like that,” Bredehoeft said. “Until then nothing can really be done to fix it.”
Peters said pet owners who try to pass their dogs off as service animals are one of the greatest threats to any service dog organization because they challenge the validity of legitimate service dogs.
“I just shake my head because it drives me crazy that people abuse the right that disabled people should have,” Peters said. “They should be able to take their service dog out in public and not be abused verbally or in any other way.”