Saturday, March 26, 2011

Therapy Dog vs Service Dog vs Pet Dog

Ranger, as I've mentioned before, is a Registered Therapy Dog with Therapy Dog International. He is not a Service Dog although the training and expectations for behavior are similar in many respects. He is also a Pet Dog. There are legal distinctions between all of these. Service Dogs, by law, are allowed in any public space that their humans can go. Therapy Dogs do not have the same legal right to be anywhere their humans are; Therapy Dogs can only go where they have permission. Pet dogs are even more limited in the places they are allowed to go; pets can only go where an open pet policy exists.

Yesterday, I was at one of my favorite thrift shops, Value Village, and noticed that there were several dogs in the store, these were all small purse sized dogs and none of them were wearing anything to identify them as Service animals. After seeing my third dog in the shop I decided to ask when I checked out--maybe Value Village was actually a dog friendly venue. If so then, Yah!, one more place I could safely take Ranger so that he's exposed to more places where he has to behave. And to be honest more convenient for me if I can take him out for a hike then stop and shop on my way home without having to be mindful of the weather or where I park. I try very hard to be mindful of condition so I don't like to leave Ranger in the car unless it is very overcast and even then I'll only leave him until the temperature hits 60 degrees F. If it is sunny I try to park in the shade and again the 60 degree rule applies. But, getting back to my story. As I was checking out I asked if Value Village was a dog friendly establishment commenting that I'd seen several dogs that day. I got the standard "Service Dogs are welcome" and a lot of complaints about people bringing in their dogs who then urinate or defecate on the floor and the owners don't clean it up. I said I was asking because my dog is a registered Therapy Dog and I'm always looking for more places I can take him.

 "Oh, Service Dogs are fine," they said.

"But he isn't a Service Dog he is a Therapy Dog, the difference is that by law a Service Dog can go anywhere I can but a Therapy Dog can only go where he has permission," I try to explain.

"If you need him you're welcome to bring him in," comes the response.

"I don't need him, but his job is visiting so I'm always please, when I can find a place he's welcome so I can keep him in practice," I say trying to explain further.

"Sure, you can bring him for socialization," they respond.

"I should mention that he's a big guy about 90 lbs." I  add.

"No, problem. You can bring your Service Dog," I'm told.

Frankly, I was surprised at how little understanding of the distinctions there was. I'm not sure that there was enough understanding to give me informed permission to bring Ranger shopping with me in Value Village. I probably won't until I've talked to them further and made sure they understand that they can say "No."

I'm sure the lack of understanding is partly due to the  very open way the law is written in the great state of Washington. Here there is no requirement that a Service Animal be identified in anyway, the animal doesn't have to wear a vest, cape, bandanna, tag or anything else. If the human partner declares the animal is a Service Animal the shop owner/manager/staff must accept that.

I've noticed, however, that people who are using a Service Animal because they need the assistance the animal provides are careful to identify their animal with a vest, cape, or bandanna. When he's working Ranger wears bandanna identification, we also carry an official identification card with his photo and he has a easily spotted yellow tag that identifies him as a Therapy Dog. You can see it in the photo below.

I try to make sure he's wearing his full compliment of tags when he's out in public but I sometimes forget. He wears his county dog licence, rabies vaccination tag, Canine Good Citizen ID tag, ID tag and his "I am a Therapy Dog" tag. In addition we've attached all his tags to longer clips so they don't get hidden by his coat. It really isn't that hard to do and yet I noticed a couple of the dogs I saw yesterday weren't even wearing collars much less tags.

So what I'm wondering is why, since the actual partners of Service Animals already do, we can't change the law to require that a Service Animal actually wear some form of identification. If nothing else it would force unscrupulous people who just want to bring their pet shopping with them to actually plan their deception and buy some form of Service Animal ID. It might cut down on some of the idiots whose thoughtless misuse of the term Service Animal give those who genuinely depend on their assistance a bad rap. What do you think?


  1. It's financial. The federal government has determined that, just as a blind person does not have to pay for badges or capes to identify a white cane as a cane for a blind person, a person with a service animal does not have to be forced to buy and badges or capes for a service animal. The federal government's position is that the service animal is an auxiliary aid--just like a white cane, a hearing aid, or a wheelchair. The feds believe acquiring and maintaining an auxiliary aid is already a financial burden a disabled person is forced to bear, such that further financial burden would be unjust. The financial policy comes from both the federal courts and the US Department of Justice (agency that enforced disability rights).

    Given the federal government's position that disabled people cannot be forced to buy badges and capes and such, the question is if the American taxpaying society as a whole would now be willing to pay an annual tax or something to fund the federal government to screen service animals for being genuine service animals (not fake), and to issue service animal ID. However, the federal government presently declines to take up the responsibility due to expense to set up a government agency to issue service animal ID, inability to figure out standards for a real versus a fake service animal, inability to pay for DOJ to learn how to tell fake versus real service animals, fear of backlog in the courts if disabled people challenge DOJ for unjust mistakes when they begin classifying service animals as fake versus real, and potentially other administrative burdens and costs. That said, many of us in the disabled community are frustrated that we cannot go to our government to have our animals definitely certified as real service animals.

    Service animal users already incur costs for veterinary care, and tend to be on limited incomes. Thus the federal government's position that the service animal users should not be treated as second-class disabled citizens (forced to bear extra costs for our auxiliary aids) is just.

    All of the above leaves us stuck where we are now. In the gap, a few private organizations formed to offer private registration of service animals, and to offer those registered animals capes, badges, and patches.

    Education of the public is key to alleviate confusion, and to reduce abuse. Education and outreach would help all people know the benefits for service animals for their disabled human partners, the benefits of therapy animals for the group of different patients they "treat" with animal assisted therapy, and the benefits of pets, but ultimately the important differences between these three different groups of animals. Education would also appeal to the conscience of pet owners to remain honest. Just as public education has drastically decreased death by drunk driving, education could influence pet owners not to cheat and register fake service animals.

    Personally, I think an intermediate step the federal government could take would be to offer optional US Government registry of service animals, at the expense of the person whose animal is registered. In essence, the US Government could open its own shop like the ones operated by the private registries. Because registry is not mandatory under the hypothetical system I suggest here, the government could charge for the service to cover its costs. Furthermore, because such registry would be optional, the government could remain immune from litigation against it if the government is uncertain if an animal qualifies as a service animal, and on that basis refund money to the disabled applicant and provides no registry for the animal in question, and the disabled person with a real service animal not registered could continue to try to prove an animal is a real service animal and reapply. (Much the way a farm that doesn’t initially get certified as “organic” may try again.)
    --Elizabeth Winchell

  2. Thank you Elizabeth for providing such a clear explanation. I hadn't thought about the cost issue. Where I live there are quite a number of Service Dogs (haven't seen other Service Animals) all clearly identified as such with vest, cape, bandanna or harness. But since there is no requirement that they wear any sort of identification it's very easy for unscrupulous people to claim their ill-mannered pet is a Service Animal. I know the question of certification for Service Animals is a big can of worms so I was looking for the smallest change that could possibly make a difference.

    I like the voluntary registry idea for a set amount a year (TDI charges $35 for example) the Service Animal partner receives an ID card identifying the animal in question as a Service Animal, bandanna (since those are pretty cheap) saying Service Animal and an ID tag.

    Still, education is, as you say, the real key.

  3. Why couldn't a tag be issued like handicapped license plates and rearview mirror hangtags? My mother's doctor has forms in his office. He filled one out for her, and I took it to the courthouse annex and got a hangtag to use when she's in the car with me.

    People who need service dogs are under a doctor's care, aren't they? Their doctors could fill out a form to be taken to the courthouse for a tag.
    Or, the service dog's veterinarian could issue the tag, like a rabies tag. The vet would surely know if the dog was a service dog.