Should service dogs be regulated?
JFK Middle School teacher Ellen Kennedy addresses her class during an experiential learning exercise Jan. 10 with her service dog, Coco, as student, Matt Skrzynski takes notes in Northampton.
Coco the service dog, official faculty, at JFK Middle School, Friday in Northampton Mass.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no federal registry or certification program for service dogs. Staff at businesses or public places cannot require proof that a dog is a service dog, though they may ask patrons if their dogs are service dogs and what the dogs are trained to do, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And while service dog owners and their advocates want the dogs to be easily accepted in public places, they also worry that the absence of federal standards could mean poorly trained and even dangerous dogs gain entry to public places where they don’t belong. Some are improperly trained service dogs, while others are pets wearing service dog vests that their owners bought online so they could take them to stores or on airplanes.
“It’s a huge, huge problem. There are a lot of fakes out there,” said Pam Murphy, a Greenfield dog expert who trains service dogs. “You can go online and buy a vest that says ‘service dog,’ no questions asked.”
Service dog owners say they worry poorly trained or fake service dogs could give authentic service dogs a bad name.
Ellen Kennedy, a Northampton middle school science teacher and dog trainer from Conway, said she and her service dog were challenged when entering a bank in Northampton once because a few days prior, a dog wearing a service dog vest had bitten someone there.
“I fear a backlash,” she said. “The vast majority of dogs, no matter how wonderful they are, do not belong in public. Without a lot of training, you can’t predict what will happen.”
Murphy said people in her service dog classes are all surprised to hear there is no federal certification to ensure that service dogs are well-trained.
The service dog owners interviewed for this story said they believe the federal government should do more to document the legitimacy of service dogs — and yet, they also worry the rules could go too far, limiting people’s ability to train their own service dogs.
U.S. Rep. James McGovern, who represents the 2nd congressional district, has sponsored legislation that would fund grants to provide service dogs to veterans who need them. In a telephone interview Thursday, he said he would be open to creating federal standards for service dogs.
ADA regulations define a service animal as a dog — and in some cases, a miniature horse — “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability” and states that they must be allowed in businesses and other places where the public is allowed.
Some states do certify service dogs or issue service animal tags, but because federal law trumps state law, they cannot be required, according to the ADA.
William Gordon of Greenfield also bought a $10 identification tag for his service dog, a St. Bernard named Rosie, even though he knows it is not legally required.
“I do bring papers with me, because if someone approaches me, it’s easier than getting into an argument,” he said.
Gordon, 43, trained Rosie to be a service dog after he was diagnosed in 2010 with PTSD related to his work as a Greenfield police lieutenant. He has since founded Canines Helping Autism and PTSD, or CHAPS, a nonprofit that helps people who need service dogs to get through the process of finding and training the right dog.
Sitting in her classroom at JFK Middle School in Northampton last week, Kennedy gave a treat to her attentive 2-year-old service dog in-training, Spuds. She, too, agrees businesses are doing better.
“In the beginning, I got stopped a lot, virtually everywhere I went,” she said.
Kennedy, 48, has had several American staffordshire terrier service dogs since 2000, when she suffered a head injury in a horse riding accident that led to balance problems, head pain and other symptoms.
Meanwhile, Kennedy said she is “very suspicious” of some dogs she sees acting as service dogs in part because it is so easy for people to buy a vest and documentation for a pet that isn’t actually a bona fide service dog.
Both Kennedy and Gordon said they have encountered dogs in service dog vests that were aggressive towards their own dogs, a sign that they were either poorly trained service dogs or pets whose owners bought them vests online.
While it is illegal to impersonate a person with a disability, service dog organizations report that arrests of people with fake service dogs are rare — and the court cases are hard to prosecute because of privacy laws about disabilities.
In addition, some service dogs are simply poorly trained, Kennedy said, because there is no federal standard. She said she doesn’t consider her dogs ready to be service dogs until they can pass the American Temperament Test, which is designed to see how the dog reacts to very stressful situations, including having an aggressive person with a bat run up to the dog and owner. “They need to be bomb proof,” she said.
Greenfield dog trainer Murphy requires dogs in her care to pass rigorous tests before she will call them service dogs. Her business, NB Productions, is one of the few training centers that offers group service dog classes. The class includes task-training and trips to public places to make sure the dog can behave in public.
The federal government could reduce the number of fake or insufficiently trained service dogs by requiring them to meet certain standards and creating a federal registry, Murphy said. Still, creating federal standards is no easy task. “Who’s going to certify the service dogs?” Gordon said, since it isn’t feasible for the government to inspect and test every dog.
As someone who trains her own service dogs, Kennedy worries that the government will try to centralize the process by authorizing the largest service dog training companies to train and certify service dogs.
“That would put us at the mercy of the two or three largest corporations that do produce service dogs,” she said. With price tags of up to $20,000 per dog, getting a service dog from one of those companies is not an option for people without the money or insurance to pay for it.