Posted on March 23rd, 2017 by Beth Finke
I am pleased to introduce Sarah Albert as a guest blogger today. Sarah teaches companion animal courses for the animal sciences department at the University of Illinois. One of the courses she leads each semester introduces the 600 students enrolled to important topics involving people and their animals, and one thing they discuss every semester is service dogs and legislation.
by Sarah Albert
I’ve been discussing the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with my students for years, especially the laws meant to protect individuals with disabilities and their ability to use service dogs in public to aid them.
Imagine my surprise then when I found myself stumbling upon a newly introduced bill in the Illinois state legislature. The bill, HB 3162, would require the department of Financial and Professional Regulation to establish a service dog license program in our state and would require that same department to come up with rules and guidelines for this licensing program. If passed, this new law would:
- Require the dog respond to basic obedience and the skilled task 90% of the time on the first command in both the home and public places;
- Require the dog demonstrate basic obedience skills with both voice commands and hand signals (sitting, laying down, walking in a controlled manner, staying in place, and coming when called);
- Require that the dog meets all of the standards laid about by the Assistance Dogs International group in public, and also being well behaved in the home;
- Require that the dog is trained to perform at least three tasks for the disability;
- Require the dog/handler to have a license card with a photograph of the dog and the names of the dog and handler;
- Require a service dog in public to wear a cape, harness, backpack, or other similar equipment with a logo that identifies it as an assistance;
- Require dogs be spayed/neutered and be vaccinated as determined by the dog’s veterinarian and applicable laws
At first glance, this may seem like a good idea, especially considering the string of fake service dogs entering public places. The rise in people bringing their pets to public places (posing as service dogs) is both dangerous and disrespectful. It jeopardizes the rights of individuals with true disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities have had to fight for their rights; rights that were finally afforded to them with the passage of the ADA in 1990. The ADA defines service animals as a “dog that has individually been trained to perform a task to aid an individual with a disability.” The law does not require a central licensing system, harnesses or vests on animals, professional training by approved organizations, or documentation of a disability.
So, why would this law be such a bad thing? Maybe we need to crack down on these fakers. To understand this question better, let’s consider three reasons why the ADA left a lot of these requirements out:
- Not all individuals with a disability have easy access to a medical doctor, and some cannot afford a visit to a medical doctor. A person with a diagnosed seizure disorder, for example, might not see a doctor regularly and making a doctor’s appointment just to get an official letter could be expensive.
- The requirement to get this license and equipment to identify an animal as a service dog. What costs fall upon the individual with the disability (a fee to apply, the cost of a vest or harness that is specially made)? What costs are required of the taxpayer to fund someone to test dogs and hand out licenses? Cost and confidentiality for the person with the disability is a huge concern – and one the ADA intended to avoid as it does not require medical documentation or vests for dogs.
- The obedience and skills required are too subjective
Let me try to explain item #3 on the list by taking a look at our seizure detection dog again as an example.
This individual who suffers from seizures may not have started out with a specially trained service dog. They may have a dog that helps them by alerting them to their condition — this could have been a pet who started to alert on its own. Alerting about seizures could become its specialized task (the one the ADA requires) but under this new proposed Illinois legislation, what three tasks will this dog be required to perform? How will they showcase the dog can do this on command if an impending seizure is needed to trigger the dog’s task? How will we ask a quadriplegic to use hand signals with his service dog? Or an autistic child to give perfect verbal commands under pressure to their service animal?
These seem like unnecessary demands for individuals who truly need these animals, and let’s also consider this: Dogs are still, well…dogs. They’re not robots who perform on command at a perfect rate. Heck, even robots mess up sometimes.
The expectation that a dog would be able to perform close to perfect in all situations is unreasonable. Even the most highly trained dogs are not always able to do this. It’s hard to know what the department will be looking for, and what will happen if someone with a true disability is denied their service animal simply because the dog had an off day.
With only these points in mind, it’s apparent this law is extremely harmful to individuals with disabilities, and completely goes against the intention of the ADA to protect their rights.
Stay tuned for a future post by Sarah Albert where she’ll outline some ideas to address the increase in fake service dogs.