Monday, January 31, 2011

Commentary: Certification- A Myth in The USA

When I read this "GOLIATH is a five pound black Chihuahua, Department of Animal Services certified Assistance dog with a Canine Good Citizen Award from the American Kennel Club in Washington D.C." (from Dastardly Landlord Evicts Five Pound Service Dog On Christmas Day) I decided that this topic was beyond ripe for commentary.
There is no requirement in the ADA that a service dog be certified and there is no such thing as a national certification in the USA- period. Meaning there is no:
  • Nationally recognized, standardized test that dog and partner must pass in order to a service dog in the USA. 
  • Agreed upon industry set of behaviors or cues beyond those of standard obedience that a service dog must know
  • Standardized set of documentation that a person with a disability utilizing a service dog must have or be able to obtain before having a service dog
  • Requirement that a service dog team be registered in any database (hint these are money making schemes)
  • Requirement that a team have and or show any special ID, collar tags, leashes, harness or any other identifying articles
What does exist and always has since the term service animal found its way into our legal history in 1990 is a for an animal to be a service animal are requirement that the animal be trained(note the past tense here- service dog candidates, potentials or otherwise still in training hoping one day to be a service dog are not covered in the ADA definition of a service animal) to perform tasks to mitigate a person's disability and that the person meet the definition of a person with a disability as defined under the ADA also. What also exists are dog teams that are trained, placed and supported by programs staffed by people skilled in training and assessing both people with disabilities for the appropriateness of a service dog assistant and training/placing potential service dogs with the needed skills. So why does this myth of certification persist?


The United States has taken the procedural/ legal route to providing protections and rights to certain classes of people. People must go through (or be prepared to go through) certain processes to prove they meet the definition of a protected class or person entitle to certain rights. Service dogs are a tool utilized by some people with disabilities as a method of accommodating a disability allowing the person to better access public spaces and services. When the idea of service dogs first took hold in the U.S. following WWI with the introduction of dog guides for people who where blind all of these teams were trained and matched by the dog guide programs. These teams worked hard over the next decades to prove that they and their dogs were safe and non-disruptive in public while showing the general public what a capable person with a disability and a highly trained, well cared for dog can accomplish together. The program model with experienced trainers, veterinarians, and skilled disability service providers became what people associated with service dogs. As the industry expanded the types of disabilities a dog could be trained to assist with and the number of programs training them blossomed. Programs are only capable of training and placing dogs for people with disabilities meeting the skills that the trainers know how to train dogs for and have the time to train while trying to meet the needs of those already waiting. The demand for service dogs far exceeds the ability of the system to supply the with the average wait time somewhere between 2.5 and 5years. So some people with disabilities who could possibly benefit from the assistance of a service dog cannot  find a program with the time/resources to train a dog for them. Still others could get a dog from a program but can't fathom waiting for five years for help.

The assumption that certification exists extends from the procedural/ laws based cultural approach to providing accommodations/assistance to people with disabilities in the U.S. This approach says that only people who meet certain legal definitions and thresholds get accommodation and in order to get them they must prove (or be able to) that the meet the legal definition to request accommodations and that those accommodations are reasonable. This idea is contradicted by the idea that people should not have to prove who they are to have their civil rights. People with disabilities are allowed to use assistive equipment their need to mitigate their disabilities in the public sphere and are not required to have ID, papers, or be in some database to use them.  As with every other part of the ADA in order to enforce it or prove a violation one must file suit in a court of law. It is of course illegal to claim to be something you are not; it's called fraud. However, this is also something to be decided by the courts.
This does not mean we as a public and service dog teams are without any recourse. The DOJ has established Three questions that business owners and their staff may ask and supports a business owners right to ask that any service animal whose behavior presents a threat or whose behavior is not under proper control of the handler with a disability. Also, many places have ordinances meant to protect people from animals who are display dangerous behaviors or are not under control  of their owners. These laws apply to service dogs also. Just because a dog may be a service dog does not give it a free pass to bark, growl or bite people or other animals. Those of us who want to see the right of public access for people with disabilities maintained need to continue to work hard to show the public and businesses what a properly behaved and trained team behaves like and help them to understand that they too have rights. ID cards, vests, and patches are not what make a dog a service dog, anyone with a connection to the internet can get these. What makes a dog a service dog is health, the proper temperament, hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, and being partnered with a person with a disability protected under ADA who they assist.
Moral of the story anyone can buy and ID and a vest or pay for a piece of paper these are not your safeguards against poorly behaved animals, neither is trying to disallow every dog. Businesses and their staff must use common sense and speak up when a team is causing disturbances through more than just being there. A true handler will address their service dog's behavior. As we must ensure our service dog is as unobtrusive as possible... hearing the phrases:
"I didn't know a dog was here!"
"Did you see what that dog did to help him/her? It was wonderful/amazing!"
"I wish my dog was so [insert good, quiet, well behaved here]"
"Your dog is so well behaved!"
"Your dog is so well [insert cared for, clean, or well groomed here]"
Should make your day and tell you you've done it right! 

3 comments:

Holden said...

I am so glad to see a post on this. I've have ADI org "certified" dog and have had a SD in the past that was not certified. Unless I'm at my wits end I refuse to show my dog's certification because it's more or less meaningless AND it just makes life harder for well trained SDs when the team doesn't have "ID" with them or at all. Certification has largely become a meaningless scheme.

Helping Paws said...

I agree with all that has been said. I do not show the ID for my dog either and consider most inquiries as due to lack of education. There has only been a couple instances where the problem could not be worked out, but we all have to make sure that we police our own and explain the difference between a well-trained Service Dog and someone's pet.

Melissa Mitchell said...

Thank you both for your comments! stay with me for more on the topic.