Braille Monitor                                             May 2016

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Fake Service Dogs: Problem or Propaganda?

by Marion Gwizdala

Marion GwizdalaFrom the Editor: Marion Gwizdala is the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU). In this article he begins to address the question of what constitutes a legitimate service dog and asks whether greater regulation and standardization is warranted. Here is what he says:

When I was younger and sighted, I enjoyed an activity called “connect the dots.” This involved a nondescript picture along with a set of numbered dots. In this activity, one began with a dot numbered one, drew a line to dot number two, and continued drawing lines between the consecutive numbered dots as a picture evolved. I want to invite our readers to play a little connect the dots with me as we examine what some refer to as “the problem of fake service dogs.”

Before we begin connecting the dots, I would like to say that the labeling of this issue as one of fake service dogs is a misnomer. The dogs are not the fakers, the people are. They are feigning a disability in order to attempt to take advantage of the laws that permit disabled individuals to be accompanied by a service dog. Secondly, I believe that calling this issue a problem elevates it to the level of needing a solution. It is my opinion that the real problem is not being created by those who misrepresent themselves as disabled accompanied by a service dog; rather, the issue is being presented as a problem by those who would benefit from the solution. Now, let us connect the dots.

In the field of psychology there is a disorder once known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, now called, Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers (FIIC). This disorder refers to the deliberate production or fabrication of physical or psychological symptoms in a child by a parent or caregiver. The theory is that the caregiver gains attention from others because of their child’s illness or is acclaimed for their actions to rescue the child from harm. In the business arena there is another term for this known as “evil marketing.” This latter term refers to a scheme in which a company fabricates a problem that does not actually exist or exaggerates a minor issue for which the company has a product or service to solve the problem.

Over the past few years there have been numerous articles in the media about the issue of fake service dogs. Though I know there are those who mistakenly believe they can call their pet a service animal because they feel better when their pet is with them, their intention is not malicious. They may be misguided or misinformed, but they are not malicious. Then there are those whose intent is less than honorable, willfully misrepresenting their pet as a service animal in order to take advantage of the civil rights provisions that allow disabled individuals to be accompanied by a service dog. I believe these are the exceptions rather than the rule. As we connect the dots, though, I am confident you will see a very interesting picture beginning to evolve.

Upon a review of these articles, the one common denominator we find is that nearly every piece has as its subject a service-animal user who has experienced an out-of-control dog whose owner has asserted their dog was a service dog in a place where pets are generally not allowed. Most of these subjects have another common denominator—they are usually consumers of a training program called Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). Now let’s connect the next dot.

CCI has created an online petition calling upon the United States Department of Justice to ban the sale of service-animal gear such as vests, harnesses, and signs from the internet. Some contend this is not an unreasonable proposal since service animal training programs issue the necessary gear, and those willing to take unfair advantage of the protections afforded us should not be given easy access to it. The challenge is that many of us have a need or desire for additional gear for specific reasons, not to mention that gear is not what makes a dog a service dog. For instance, my wife and I have guide dog harnesses made of nylon and PVC, which are much lighter than the leather and metal versions issued by our training programs, will not set off metal detectors in airports and courthouses, and are more appropriate for beach visits. These items were purchased online from a NAGDU member who makes these harnesses. A number of other reputable companies make harnesses and other gear for service dogs available on the internet, and these companies should not be prohibited from selling their products in the marketplace of the World Wide Web. It would be rather naïve to believe that prohibiting the sale of service-animal gear on the internet will solve the issue of those who misrepresent their pets as service dogs.

Canine Companions for Independence is also engaging in fearmongering. Their contention is that those who misrepresent their pets as service dogs threaten the legal rights of those of us who have legitimate service dogs by causing businesses to question everyone who enters their business with a dog. I believe this is actually a good thing. As more businesses learn what questions they can ask and how to identify a legitimate service dog from a pet, those who are misguided or malevolent will be deterred from this behavior. It is also important to share that when someone signs the CCI petition, they are asked to give their email address and they are advised they will receive additional information. When I visited CCI’s petition site, they claimed they had more than 17,000 signers, so they have amassed a very sizeable contact list from this propaganda. I believe we need to connect a few more dots to really get a clearer picture of the true motives. Let’s take a look at another player in the service dog industry.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is the only accrediting body of service-animal programs in the world. ADI has created an ethical standard to which all their members, candidates, and program consumers must adhere as a condition of accreditation. Here is a brief sample of these so-called ethical standards as they apply to service dog training programs and those they train:

As it pertains to other service dogs ADI has the following standard:

The term “client” used in these standards refers to the service dog user. The logical follow-up question is, “What would be the consequences if we, as consumers, refused to comply with these standards?” As it pertains to the issuance of identification cards and the mandate that the service dog wear any specific gear, such requirements as a condition of access are incongruent with the implementing regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and should not be imposed upon a consumer and purported as ethical.

Throughout its standards and another document published by ADI entitled “Public Access Test,” ADI uses the term “certified by ADI,” as if this certification carries some particular benefit. It appears to me as if ADI is attempting to position itself as the certifying body for all things service-animal related. To the best of my knowledge, no guide dog training program is accredited by ADI, and such accreditation is not required as a condition of legal access. So, if Assistance Dogs International is so irrelevant in the guide dog training industry, why even bring them up? Well, let’s connect a few more dots.

On its website, CCI proudly proclaims that it was the very first service dog training program to be accredited by ADI. Remember that most of the articles concerning the issue of the misrepresentation of service dogs featured consumers of Canine Companions for Independence and CCI has a petition to ban the sale of service dog gear on the internet. Add to this that a number of states have attempted to introduce legislation that would require a service dog user to present documentation that a dog is a service dog, wear specific gear, issue identification tags, and create service dog registries—all of which are incongruent with the implementing regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act—in an effort to combat the false perception promulgated by the media that there is a problem needing a solution. Over the past two years Bob Kresmer and our Arizona affiliate have spent too many hours opposing this sort of legislation, and several states have such provisions in their law that have been problematic for guide dog users attempting to protect their civil rights. So far the National Association of Guide Dog Users and the National Federation of the Blind have been successful in getting such legislation withdrawn or amended, but it has created unnecessary work for us. We see a real problem unfolding, and it is not being created by those misrepresenting their pets as service dogs. Let’s continue connecting the dots and watch this picture evolve.

Until 2014 the executive director of CCI was a man named Corey Hudson. Corey Hudson is also a past president of ADI North America. Equally interesting is that the current president of ADI North America is Paul Mundell, who also serves as the national director of canine programs at Canine Companions for Independence. So, if there is a problem with those misrepresenting their pets as service dogs, if the federal government bans or regulates the sale of service dog gear on the internet, if those of us who use service dogs are required to undergo regular recertification, or if we are required to obtain identification cards for our service dogs, what organization do you think would benefit from these regulations but the self-elevated organization that certifies all things service dog?

Long before the fabrication of the nonproblem of fake service dogs by manipulating the media to shore up the need for a solution, there was an attempt to convince the United States Department of Justice that a problem could exist if the regulations did not require the wearing of special gear and other identification provisions. As early as 1991 Mr. Hudson expressed his concerns over what he believed would be the abuse of the ADA by those wishing to pass their pets off as service dogs. Under date of October 23, 1991, Mr. Hudson wrote to the United States Department of Justice, “While Canine Companions for Independence and other members of Assistance Dogs International are pleased that the ADA recognizes service animals, we are also concerned that the law not be abused by others.” Mr. Hudson went on to write, “In April 1991, Robin Dickson, President of Assistance Dogs International, Canine Companions for Independence, and I believe several other Assistance Dog Schools/Centers submitted suggestions that ADA regs. provide for some ID for properly trained assistance dogs. I am again making this request.” [sic] <>

Fortunately the DOJ did not heed the requests of CCI, ADI, and the “several other Assistance Dog Schools/Centers” to which Mr. Hudson alluded, refusing to impose requirements for specific gear or other identification as a condition of our civil right to be accompanied by a service dog. Though NAGDU and the NFB have not created an official policy statement on this question, we have a long history of opposing requirements for special gear or documentation and supporting the rights of owner-trainers—individuals who have trained their own guide dogs. During our 2015 annual meeting, we had about one hundred guide dog teams in the room and about fifteen of them were owner-trainers. The provisions of special gear and identification cards advocated by those who would benefit from such requirements and the prohibition of the sale of service-animal gear on the internet would have an adverse effect on owner-trainers and anyone else wishing to purchase service-animal gear for legitimate purposes.

Since the current DOJ regulations do not require a service animal be trained by a training program to be recognized as a service dog, it is possible to train one’s own dog to perform tasks or do work that meets the definition of a service animal under the implementing regulations. Training a dog to pick up dropped items, open doors, or alert to sounds are not tasks only a professional trainer can teach. In fact, all of the owner-trained guide dog teams I have encountered have been more highly trained and consistently better behaved than some of the program-trained dogs I have come across. Even if such regulations were to be adopted—and I highly doubt they will—what is to prevent someone who really wants to beat the system from doing so? Should we ban the sale of lamination equipment from office supply stores so fake identification cards cannot be produced? Should we regulate those who make leather products so they cannot produce harnesses and seamstresses so they cannot sew service-animal vests? There is a far better solution to this issue, and each of us can be a part of that solution.

One of my favorite adages when conducting service animal training seminars is, “It is better to educate than to litigate.” Most of us have faced violations of our civil rights, but few of us have needed to seek legal remedies. Usually a bit of education is all that is needed.

We want businesses to know the rights of an individual accompanied by a service dog are not absolute, and businesses have the right to deny access to dogs that pose a direct threat, are out-of-control and the handler does not take action to correct the behavior, or if the dog is not housebroken. I will submit an article in the future discussing the responsibilities of service dog users and the rights of businesses as they pertain to access to individuals accompanied by service animals. In the meantime, if you would like more information about the rights and the responsibilities of service-animal users, we have the tools and information to offer guidance. This will go much further than restricting our rights the way CCI and ADI wish.

In order to be good advocates, we need a few tools and sound skills. The National Federation of the Blind’s National Association of Guide Dog Users sponsors The NAGDU Information & Advocacy Hotline. This nationwide toll-free telephone service offers general information about service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as specific guidance concerning restaurants, taxicabs, and healthcare facilities. Callers needing immediate assistance can connect directly to a live, trained advocate.

Now there’s an app for that. The National Association of Guide Dog Users is proud to sponsor the NAGDU Service Animal Information & Advocacy mobile app. This innovative app provides general information about the state and federal laws that protect the civil rights of disabled individuals who use service dogs. The app contains the full texts of the implementing regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as they pertain to service animals and each of the state statutes that affirm the rights of those who use service dogs, as well as general guidance concerning access to specific types of establishments, such as hotels, restaurants, taxicabs, healthcare facilities, and more. In addition, this app provides the ability to directly connect with a live advocate who has been specially trained to resolve access issues as they occur or send an email for more specific guidance. This app is provided by the National Association of Guide Dog Users at no charge as a public service. To download the app, simply type the term “NAGDU” into the app store’s search field.

In an effort to better train our members about the rights and responsibilities of guide and other service dog users and learn how to initiate a dialogue with businesses, we are offering a special advocacy-training seminar, so plan to join us on Tuesday, May 17, at 8:00 p.m. eastern time for a dynamic training program conducted by the staff of our hotline. During this training, we will offer you some new tools to help start the conversation and share the skills of advocacy. To join the teleseminar, please call the NAGDU boardroom at (641) 715-3300 and enter participant code 560908#. We look forward to mobilizing our membership to remove the obstacles we face as we live the lives we want in our communities and make a meaningful impact on the rights of guide and other service dog users in the United States.

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