Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why Professional Training or Certification of Service Dogs Should not be Required under ADA

Note from Maeve: Legal stuff is just ridiculous human nonsense, and I can't be bothered to think much about it, so I'm letting Joanne write this blog post. Take is away Joanne!

Here's what the Department of Justice (which enforces the ADA) recently published on this subject:

Below are Joanne's comments:

1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law intended to give our society a shove towards inclusion of the disabled. It was not intended to cater to the preferences of the non-disabled public, of people who make money providing goods or services to the disabled, or of businesses and state/local government, but instead to challenge them to change their physical premises and change their behavior and practices in every way that is reasonable.  It also gives persons with disabilities wide discretion in what assistive measures they will use and how they will use them.  There is no requirement, for example, that legally blind people use a cane with a white tip in order that businesses will be able to distinguish them from people who just need glasses and therefore are not disabled.  One could demand to use the chair lift on a bus even if seated in a homemade wheelchair. There are no significant restrictions on what walkers, oxygen machines, etc., must do, look like, or be in order to be covered under the ADA.  A service dog is the equivalent of an assistive device under the ADA. Consistent with this, the Department of Justice has established minimal requirements for service dogs: they must be trained to do something specific to the handler's disability, they must be housebroken, they must not menace people, and they must be or be brought back quickly under the handler's control.

In the 60's business owners complained they would lose business, have fights break out, etc., if they were forced to allow blacks into their establishment and provide services to them exactly where and how they provided services to others.  Customers often preferred that black people not sit next to them or use the same bathroom for fear of infection.  Some were willing to accept light-skinned blacks dressed and acting in conservative ways, but felt some young dark black men with afros were an obvious physical danger to whites.  None of that was relevant, in a legal sense, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The objectons to allowing people served by service dogs free and easy public access are quite similar. The misguided predjudices and preferences of the majority and of businesses and governments are the reason civil rights laws (including the ADA) were and are necessary.

2. Certification and/or professional training are not needed to protect the public, businesses, or state/local governments from misbehaving dogs.  First, let's admit the truth here.  Dogs have bad days.  Dogs get sick. Some people spoil and/or mistreat and/or mishandle their service dogs.  No dog, regardless of the amount of professional training, regardless of what tests it has passed, carries any guarantee of good behavior at all times and in all places.  Guide dogs for the blind from fabulous, well-known training programs have been known to misbehave in public. Things go wrong and sometimes the dog needs to be removed. The law provides for this. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's ADA Business Brief on service dogs, the disabled handler may be asked to remove his/her dog if: "(1) the animal is out of control and the animal's owner does not take effective action to control it (for example, a dog that barks repeatedly during a movie) or (2) the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others." This allows a business to get rid of ANY dog:-- professionally trained, certified, or otherwise -- when it truly presents a problem that is not reasonable for the business to tolerate.

3. The danger of the fake service dog is a canard. Not allowing dogs in public places is not a public health issue.  If it were, even service dogs would not be allowed.  Instead, they are expressly allowed in business that sell or prepare food and in hospitals. The Center for Disease Control had this to say about service dogs in hospitals; "No evidence suggests that animals pose a more significant risk of transmitting infection than people; therefore, service animals should not be excluded...." A preschool-aged child is a far greater threat to one's health than is a dog.

Yes, it is possible for someone to "fake" a service dog.  It is also possible that someone who envies the advantages given wheelchair users could pretend to be disabled in order to obtain special treatment, but one cannot ask for proof that a person requires a wheelchair.  People cheat on their taxes too.  However, most dogs are not capable of dealing with the stress of public access; this is the most common reason dogs are released from professional service dog training programs.  The crime of "faking" a service dog comes with its own penalty -- a misbehaving dog that makes the cheat's time in public uncomfortable and may require him to remove it from the premises. At any rate, it is not consistent with the purpose of the ADA to limit the options of a disabled person because of the dishonesty of some non-disabled persons.

4) Service dog training is expensive and people with disabilities tend to have significantly fewer financial resources. Producing service dogs is an expensive proposition.  There is a book on the current NY Times bestseller list, Until Tuesday, about a wonderful, professionally trained service dog from a great training program in CT.  It reveals the cost of that dog:  $25,000.  That's nearly three years of gross income for more than a couple of people in my support group. Other training programs can cost less, but the cheapest alternative for a fully trained service dog I've encountered is $10K.   It's not that these programs are cheating the disabled.  It is incredibly labor intensive to produce such a dog. However, if one is able to do one's own training a service dog can be had for much less.  My dog, Maeve, has required only two hours of professional training at a cost of $90. I spent most of my money on a well-bred, healthy puppy with 10 generations of healthy sires and dams and great temperament: $1,800. Did I get lucky and did I work hard? Yes. I might well have failed to produce a good service dog, but it was my right to try.

5) Training a dog is therapeutic.Ask my therapist: training Maeve did wonders for my mental health.  Even if mine weren't a psychiatric disability, I would have gotten a great sense of accomplishment and pride in producing a well-behaved service dog.  There are few disabled people who wouldn't benefit from a little more sense of accomplishment and pride.

6) A self-trained dog is useful more quickly and will serve longer.  It is common in service dog programs that the dog is not matched with its person until it is nearly two years old. Maeve is currently three months shy of her second birthday.  She's been helping me and accompanying me everywhere for over a year. I wouldn't give that year back for the world. Remember too that a dog can be helpful long before it is fully trained and even before it is ready for public access.

7) Self-training is a big challenge and shouldn't be made harder by bureaucratic devices like standardized tests or certification requirements.  There are many things a service dog should ideally do that are not absolutely required by a particular disabled person.  For example, Maeve often loses her mind when a squirrel runs by and will pull on the leash with all her considerable might.  If she were serving someone frail or unsteady that would be a deal breaker.  However, I'm physically healthy and strong.  I can live with that failing. Maeve doesn't know how to heel. I don't need that command.  She knows "follow" which puts her walking just behind me and "go" which tells her to lead.  Maeve is trained to engage the public -- something strongly discouraged by most trainers and handlers, but something I need her to do. It is not consistent with the intention of the ADA to require me to train her to do unnecessary things and/or to avoid training her to do what I need her to do just so she can pass a test.

8) There is no right under the ADA for public access by a service dog in training.  The only way to train a dog to behave properly in a restaurant or grocery is to work with it in that environment.  You can prepare him/her ahead of time by practicing at your dinner table, but that isn't the same as having waiters scurrying around, a carpet sweeper at the next table, a rattling dessert table wheeled by, and screaming children playing under the next table. If a dog is not a service dog until he passes a comprehensive behavior test and therefore can't practice in real environments, self-training could become very difficult.. The current legal situation requires that the dog be well-trained and well-socialized enough that he is under the control of his handler or quickly brought under control after a lapse, that he/she will not menace people, and that he/she will not eliminate indoors -- no more.  If the dog eats french fries dropped under the table by a previous diner or disrupts the handler's meal by fidgeting and whining, or is too stressed to continue long enough for the handler to eat, that's the handler's business.  Note: there are some states that extend the public access right to service dogs in training, but that weakens the argument for certification -- someone who would inappropriately identify their dog as a service dog would get around certification in those states by identifying their dog as a service dog in training.


  1. I'm about to lose my home and need to apply for public housing but I have a large dog, Lab, I can't live without. I suffer from PTSD and depression. Someone told me I should have her certified as a service dog but I don't have a clue how to do it. I'm not on SSDI but I'm preparing to apply. I'd die before giving my dog up, she's the only reason I have to continue living.

  2. You don't have to lose your dog because you move. Please use the contact us page at to call me.


Maeve is a psychiatric service dog for Joanne Shortell and mental health advocate for all people with psychiatric disabilities. Maeve's goal is to become the Johnny Appleseed of emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.

Copyright Joanne Shortell 2010-2011