Of Phony Service Dogs and True Ones

“I am his highness’s dog at Kew; / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”

—Alexander Pope

If you’re like me and travel with a trained guide dog you’ve likely heard about the steady and alarming appearance of false service dogs in public. You don’t have to be blind or deaf or experience PTSD or diabetes or balance issues and navigate with the  assistance of a professional canine to have seen this story. Incidents of faux service dogs are everywhere in the news.

My guide dogs have been expertly trained to work in midtown Manhattan traffic, locate the edges of railway platforms and stop, disobey unwise commands, watch out for low hanging branches or storefront awnings, avoid holes in sidewalks, find ways around construction obstacles, locate stairs and elevators, and yes, be good citizens in shops, restaurants, movie theaters, ball parks, or when riding public transportation.

One of the finest compliments a guide dog user can receive is when departing a restaurant someone says: “Oh, I’d no idea a dog was under that table!” The surprise of others reflects the serious training our dogs have received and our commitment as dog handlers to keep that training sharp. The latter is as important as the former.

Yes. Real service dog users have skill. Not only that, we’ve studied it. In my memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey (due out from Simon & Schuster in March, 2018) I describe what it was like to learn how little I knew about myself and about dogs when I trained with my first guide, “Corky” a yellow Labrador. Here, a trainer I’ve called “Linda” addresses a dozen blind people and their new dogs:

“Our new dogs require praise—lots of praise,” said Linda. “It’s all in the voice. Nowadays a guide dog loves it when you say, ‘Good dog’ with a tone of true joy. Try it!” And we all said, “Good dog” just as Linda had shown us. 

Corky raised her face to look at me, her big yellow snout pointing straight up. And every dog in the room did the same. Something palpable went around our circle—the star of praise that only dogs can see was re- leased by our voices. “Good dog!” We said it again and again. Our overdramatized tones were like stylized laughter in an opera. All tails were wagging. 

“We say, ‘Good dog’ because Guiding Eyes dogs really want to work,” said Linda. “They have been through many months of training. These dogs enjoy their jobs. But just like you, they require praise. From this moment on you will be saying ‘Good dog’ as much as a hundred times a day.” 

Who affirms good things even a dozen times a day? Who makes “talking goodness” a habit of her or his minutes? I sat with my Corky’s head on my shoe and thought about the “talking blues”—as a literary guy I’d studied vocal sorrow—but never had I considered a running, day long practice of spoken good. “Good dog” would become my hourly practice and over time (though I didn’t yet know it), dog-praise would change many of my habits of thought.

One of the surest giveaways you’re not seeing a real service dog is its owner’s obvious lack of control and his or her concomitant lack of praise. Not long ago on an airline flight from Dallas to New York I heard a woman loudly berating her dog because it was barking and it obviously had the jitters. It was obvious the dog wasn’t professionally trained to do anything other than follow its owner everywhere.

My own dog was curled up under my feet and entirely quiet.

I felt terrible for that dog much in the way I often feel sorry for children being scolded in supermarkets by unfit parents.

The fake service dog people are ungenerous both to dogs and to disabled folks. It takes profound commitment to train with a guide dog or a PTSD canine—or any other genuine service dog. The disabled who train with professional dogs know more about dogs than almost anyone. Moreover they know a great deal about themselves and their hopes and aspirations.

The shouting woman on that plane insisted that she had a disability and her dog was a service dog. “Look!” She said, “It has a vest!”

That dog barked and scrabbled all through the flight.

The Americans with Disabilities Act asserts that as far as service dogs are concerned authorities cannot ask the disabled for papers, a safeguard is designed to protect a person’s privacy. It’s nobody’s business if you have an invisible disability, or so the thinking goes. I agree with this position. Invisible conditions should in general be your own business. Why must someone with a traumatic brain injury have to disclose their disability to the general public?

Predictably enough unscrupulous vendors have been taking full advantage of the ADA’s guarantees of privacy. A considerable online industry caters to able bodied people who want to take their pets everywhere. All you have to do is get a doctor’s note saying you need of a service dog, send it in, and voila, you receive a vest that says “Service Dog” and no one can ask you a thing about it. You can take your untrained “Barky Boy” anywhere you like.

Dishonest? You bet. But for my money the worst thing about it is the insult to my dog’s ardor, faithfulness, and intelligence. And yes, the further insult to guide dog trainers and puppy raisers who devote a whole year of their lives to raising future guide dogs. And yes, the insult to the work that true service dog users must undertake to become successful.

Another way to say this is, there’s no love in it. Fake service dog people don’t love their dogs or anyone else.