My First Serious Access Challenge

This past Tuesday was the first time I experienced an access challenge that went beyond something along the lines of, “We don’t allow dogs in here.” “He’s a service dog.” “Oh, ok.” Or, “Is that a service dog?” “Yes.” “Ok, just checking.”

I was pressed to present “paperwork,” for my dog. Here’s a video of how things transpired with the second employee who approached me.

(Video description on YouTube: Before recording this, I had an initial interaction with a different employee, who insisted I present papers/documentation for my service dog. After quickly asserting my rights with her, she opted to have me talk to someone else, who I was told would be a manager.

This video reflects the entirety of my interaction with the second and final employee who I dealt with.)

My biggest Achilles Heel in this situation was the degree to which I was caught off guard. I’m lucky in that I’ve become accustomed to a partnership devoid of experiences like this one. Business employees rarely give me a second glance- at least not a scrutinizing one- when I enter with Bradley. So, when I was immediately approached in a somewhat hostile manner, being commanded to present documentation that was not legally required of me to either possess or present, I was very taken aback. I’ve experienced a myriad of access challenges, vicariously, through my friends in the service dog community, but it’s entirely different to experience it first hand. This was an invaluable learning experience just as much for me as it was for the employees to whom I asserted my rights and offered an education of theirs.

I do worry how much differently this experience would have been, had I not been prepared with the relevant educational resources about the applicable laws. Of course, I would have continued my effort to remain calm, well spoken and assertive, without compromising any of my rights or responsibilities as a representative of the service dog community. But I’m not sure that, in the absence of printed out educational material, the employees would have been as receptive to what I would have had to say.

This experience validated my position on the use of ID cards for service dogs, whether they’re from scam registries, fake certification companies or even the presentation of a legitimate certification ID for the purpose of gaining access to a place of public accommodation, during a public access dispute. Whoever was there with a dog, legitimate service dog or not, had presented something of that nature, which further cemented the impression in the eyes of management at that business that such documentation is required of service dog handlers. In an effort to make things easier for herself, that person directly affected how much more difficult things were made for me. I have no one to thank but myself, for my preparedness to deal with the ramifications of her decision.

Owner Training Service Dogs

The concept of owner training a service dog was new to me, up until about a year ago.  Society is still catching up with the notion that service dogs play a valuable role in the lives of the disabled, so knowledge of alternative routes of training or acquiring service dogs is not widespread.

Opinions about owner training service dogs vary significantly.  Some people who hear about it for the first time are both fascinated and impressed, while others think it’s a responsibility best left to the “experts”(i.e. programs like Guide Dogs for the Blind).  There’s no question that I’m in full support of owner training.  However, I’m a firm subscriber to the “to each his own” school of thought.  Even more than I support owner training, I believe that the right to choose between owner training, private training or program training is the most important issue.

It saddens me that the most intense division is among service dog handlers themselves.  While there are plenty service dog handlers who share the viewpoint that different methods are better for some handlers than others, some are just as biased against the “opposing” group as some people are against the use of service dogs in itself.  There are some owner trainers who have an elitist air about them because they may think that there is more honor in training your own dog than having someone else train him.  Alternatively, there are some handlers of program trained dogs who find it reckless or unrealistic for disabled people to train their own dog.  My firm position is that neither is the case.

Realistically, I can only look at the issue from one perspective, as an owner trainer.  I’m also new to the game so my viewpoints are probably more representative of the non-service dog-user than of a seasoned service dog handler or service dog trainer.

I’ve experienced, what I interpret to be, grave hypocrisy, from some other service dog handlers. Maybe I’m just naive, but I expected a lot more support and comradery than I’ve encountered upon disclosing my status as an owner trainer.  Maybe it’s because these interactions have taken place online? Failure to remember that there’s a human being at the other end of internet communication is no new phenomenon, so it’s possible. Regardless, I was surprised to receive such harsh judgments from other SD handlers.  Recurring responses are either of disbelief that a visually impaired person can train a guide dog or that I must not be blind enough to need a service dog.  Either way, these are mindsets that one would expect from someone who has no experience with SD’s; not from someone who should have heightened sensitivity to the issue. Oh well, c’est la vie.

On the other hand, I have no problem with members of the non-service dog-using general public who are taken aback by the concept of owner training.  It’s a subject matter that one shouldn’t expect everyone to be well versed in.

My grandfather asked me a question a couple weeks ago that was interestingly phrased.  He asked, “Is it considered good etiquette to train your own dog?” This represents a perspective from which I never would have thought to approach this subject.  My answer was something along the lines of, “Of course! It’s legal to do so and although it’s not common knowledge, it’s not uncommonly done.  When you see a service dog out and about, there’s no way to know whether he was owner trained or not.”

So…not only is it legal and acceptable to train your own service dog; it’s also good etiquette!

There’s a huge difference between owner training a service dog and putting a vest that says “Service Dog”on your pet dog so you can take him out in public.  Trying to pass a pet dog off as a service dog is neither acceptable nor legal. There are people who do this, however, and owner trainers should never be associated with this pathetic minority. Those who try this will get their reality check sooner or later.  At the very least, they’ll realize what an unbearable inconvenience it is to be accompanied by a dog who is barely trained in basic obedience when they can’t get anything done because the dog is out of control.  If Karma has any say in the matter, it will be clear that the dog is not a service dog and the owner will be prosecuted for their crime.

Owner trainers tend to be more sensitive to the scrutiny placed on service dogs than handlers of program trained dogs.  There’s no denying that when presented with a public access challenge (meaning a business owner illegally prohibits access to the business to a service dog team), the handler of a program trained dog will have an easier time asserting their rights than an owner trainer.  Business owners, the general public and, unfortunately, even law enforcement are more likely to give validation to a program trained service dog than an owner trained service dog.  Because of this, many owner trainers put more substantial emphasis on their dogs’ flawless behavior in public than may be necessary.

While the legal definition of a service dog doesn’t specify a particular level of training, owner trainers hold themselves accountable for training their dogs to the standards one would expect from a program trained dog.

There are two ways many owner trainers evaluate a dog’s status as a service dog.  The first is by assessing the dog’s behavior in public places, under normal circumstances.   While the law dictates that service dogs may not act aggressively, destructively or in a disturbing manner that significantly alters the nature of a business, there are no legally mandated minimum standards of behavior in public.

However, without certain standards, it is possible to live in a vacuum.  That being said, many people choose to administer a public access test (PAT).  There is no universally recognized public access test, but many organizations use their own and most are very similar.  If a dog is tested by a particular organization and passes, he may be considered certified by that particular organization.  Service dogs are not legally required to be certified by any organization. Administering the PAT is personal choice and may simply act as a means to gauge the dog’s level of training.  PAT’s are geared to evaluate the dog’s behavior under normal circumstances and a dog who passes is unlikely to manifest behaviors that could get him legally restricted from a public place.

The second, and most important factor in determining a dog’s status as a service dog is task training.  This is the only factor considered in regard to the legal definition of a service animal. A service dog must perform a task that mitigates his handler’s disability in a significant manner.  There is no particular set of tasks or method of performing the tasks, as long as they are specific to the handler’s disability.  No task training certification is legally required for the dog to be considered a service dog.

Going back to what I said earlier: There is a huge difference between owner training and putting a service dog vest on a pet dog.  Owner training is not an endeavor to jump into impulsively.  The level of knowledge and time commitment necessary to successfully train a service dog is inconceivable until you actually do it.

The decision whether or not to owner train needs to be left in the hands of the most important person in the equation: the owner.  Just as program trained dogs are an invaluable asset to some people with disabilities, the benefits of owner training to those who are willing and capable are insurmountable.

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