Abuse of the Assistance Dog Concept Hurts All of Us

Each day, I receive at least one email or a Facebook link from someone, asking me to support a fundraiser that’s raising money to buy an assistance dog for a child in great need. Because so many of my Facebook friends are in the Epilepsy Community, most of the time the dogs are seizure alert dogs. I’m fascinated by these animals…their abilities, the needs they fulfill, the intense training that both dog and owner go through, and the improved quality of life they can provide to their owners.

And, it’s not just those with Epilepsy that a service dog can serve. Dogs can be hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, service dogs for children with autism and guide dogs for people with visual impairments. The world of service dogs, their training and care, is a remarkable one.

That’s why…when I learned last week that people actually can order identification packages online to pass their dog-their pet-off as a service dog, in order to take them anywhere they want to go, including on an airplane, I was mortified, to say the least. As someone with a chronic disease (or condition, however you choose to describe Epilepsy), I know the power of a trained animal…and how they assist those with Epilepsy. I don’t have one, but I’ve seen them in action, and it’s profound and compelling.

According to Paws With A Cause, “A dog can be trained to (among other things) push life-alert buttons, help and/or comfort a person during a seizure and get help or retrieve the phone for the client. Although we do not profess to train dogs to detect seizures, several of our Seizure Dogs have, after several years with a client, developed the ability to alert their owner of an oncoming seizure.”

And there are people out there mocking this concept? It’s unbelievable, simply put. So, I did some research.

It’s true, if you are a business owner, teacher, restaurant worker or an airline employee, there’s not much you can do if you suspect that a dog is not a trained service dog. “The issue is extremely complicated…the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is written so that people with disabilities do not have to ‘prove’ their disability to anyone,” according to Darlene Sullivan, Executive Director of Canine Partners for Life. So, abuse happens. It’s sort of a glitch in the system. Those people who have a legitimate disability and are lucky enough to have a trained service dog are essentially disrespected and insulted by the abuse of the system.

Photo: Canine Partners for Life

Living with a disability or a chronic illness, it feels as if these people are making fun of our challenges by ‘faking’ their need for a service dog. Trust me, I will trade places with anyone, any day, if you’d like to walk in my shoes!

Photo: Canine Partners for Life

So, what can we do? Not much, at least for now. But as advocates we have the power to change this. “A business is permitted to ask a person if they have a disability and if the dog is trained to assist them with that disability – they are not permitted to ask anything else,” Ms. Sullivan told me.

I hope in the coming months we can begin addressing this issue. I have a feeling we will. In the meantime, if this is upsetting you as much as it upsets me, I urge you to contact your legislators, your local Epilepsy Foundation and some of the assistance dog organizations for more information.

Here are some great ones that I’m in contact with:

Paws With A Cause, K94Life.org, International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP)