Over the weekend, a news story out of Texas about a man asked to leave a Walgreens store because of his service dog spread across the Internet. The important question is, should we be filled with righteous fury at the store, or at the dog-toting shopper? While asking the pair to leave could have been handled more graciously, the important question is whether the dog is a service animal at all.
The customer is a Marine veteran, who says that his dog is therapeutic. Providing comfort and companionship isn’t the same as being a service dog, though: a dog can be your best buddy and provide emotional support, but that doesn’t matter if it lacks training to perform a specific function other than just being a dog, such as alerting people to its owner’s seizures.
There is no national registry of service dogs, and another wrinkle is that the Veterans Administration isn’t currently using service dogs as a form of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder: if it did, it would provide the dogs and training, as well as veterinary care for the dogs. Some nonprofits are filling in the gap, providing specially-trained pups or training for the dogs that veterans might already have or acquire from a shelter.
PTSD service dogs do exist: they are trained to distract their owners when a stress reaction occurs or is imminent. Slapping an orange vest on your BFF and calling him a service dog doesn’t automatically make him one.
The federal government has a very specific definition of a service dog:
Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
An attorney explained to Fox 4 in Dallas-Fort Worth that there are two questions it’s okay for businesses to ask someone with a purported service dog in their establishments: “Is that a service dog?” and “What is it trained to do?” A demonstration isn’t required, since that would be dangerous for dogs trained to detect seizures or low blood sugar.