Trainer Ethics: Calling Your Well Trained Dog A “Service Dog.”

Trainer Ethics: Calling Your Well Trained Dog A “Service Dog.”

ethics and service dogs

You may have missed the social media explosion resulting from a blog post by a well certified dog trainer admitting she passes off her pet dog as a Service Dog. At first glance this may not seem like a big deal. After all, the dog is well-behaved and giving a good representation of what a “well-trained Service Dog” looks and acts like. That’s not so bad, right? In fact, now that she’s come clean with her fakery, wouldn’t it be a good idea to allow all well-behaved dogs in public places? Should there be limits to where regular pet dogs can go if they’re well-trained? Maybe there should be a Pet Dog Access ID that could be earned that would allow dogs to go places. While the sentiment to allow our dogs in more public spaces is sound, the method she used is incredibly disturbing.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify some of what she admitted to.

  • Telling taxi drivers her dog is a Service Dog so they would be allowed in a cab.
  • Police were called when a cab driver denied her and her dog a ride.
  • Having a friend create a fake Service Dog ID.
  • Using the fake Service Dog ID when questioned by shop owners if the dog was a Service Dog.

While most of us can agree that going to such lengths as to call the police to perpetuate a lie is going too far, where do we actually draw the line of pushing our dogs into no-access spaces? As an example, let’s say it’s 105 degrees outside, your perfect dog is in the car, and your father was just rushed to the Emergency Room. Would you claim your dog was a Service Dog to be able to wait in the hospital lobby ? Would you push to be able go into the ER with your dog? Would it actually harm anyone if you did it? Or is harm only done if you get caught?

What is a service dog?
Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

What is a disability?
An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.

Let’s cut to the chase. If you don’t have a disability you do not have a Service Dog. Period. If your dog isn’t trained to do a specific task that mitigates your disability then your dog is not a Service Dog. Period.

To fake a Service Dog is illegal and insulting to people who rely on their dog to get through the day. How many daily conversations do people with disabilities need to have about their Service Dog just to get things done? We see articles all the time about businesses denying access to a person with disabilities with their dog. Just this week we saw a Purple Heart Recipient Denied Access. If you are a fake you are making it harder for people with legitimate need to get access.

In a time when we should be trying to educate businesses about what they can and can’t do, fakery only adds to the idea that everyone is faking it. A friend of mine owns a local deli which is visited by a woman with a completely unruly “Service Dog.” On the surface it would appear the dog is a fake. Aren’t Service Dogs supposed to be well-behaved? No, actually, they only need to be trained for a function. If the dog is unruly a business owner can ask them to leave. When I asked my friend why she didn’t ask her patron to leave she said, “I asked the health inspector since the dog is trying to get behind the deli counter. He said to just endure it. If I remove the woman and her dog there would be a huge backlash and I’d lose business.” Having businesses as allies is important. Why make this harder? If a business owner thinks they have no recourse if a Service Dog destroys something they’re not going to be accommodating. Trainers should be advocating for well-behaved Service Dogs and getting businesses on board, not trying to fool them.

One of the more interesting topics to come out of this social storm is what, if anything, the certifying bodies should do when one of their members makes an admission of guilt. Is a blog post enough to remove their certification? Is there a mechanism for a reprimand or probation or temporary removal of a certification? Or is it all or nothing? If we are positive reinforcement trainers advocating an ethical hierarchy to teach behavior in animals, aren’t humans animals? Do we have to go directly to +P? What is an appropriate response?

On the flip side, most of us have no idea how ethics investigations work with the certifying bodies we belong to. At least if you break a law you have some idea of the consequences. It would be beneficial to have an idea of the process of an investigation and the possible consequences, both as members and as witnesses to possible violations of standards.

As professionals, when you see another trainer presented with overwhelming evidence that they should reconsider their actions, what would you expect their reaction to be? This particular storm grew quickly because of the trainer’s gloating, defensiveness, attacking her critics, and further justifying her actions. She then took the offending blog post down and posted on her business page, “I am too busy training to argue with faceless people on the Internet.” An important lesson from this event: Once it’s on the internet you can’t get it back. Google cached it, people printed it, took screenshots of it, etc. It’s still out there. Her business page was barraged with comments. She simply could not remove them fast enough. As one popped up people replied and added more. It was The Perfect Weekend Social Storm.

Lesson: If you’re in over your head and taking attacks from all sides, step away from the computer and make a plan. As we all know, reactivity gets you into trouble every time.

For those of us who share this trainer’s certifications, we feel guilty by association. Is this what following a code of ethics looks like? Not to many of her fellow professional trainers. In this case a sincere public apology would be appropriate, both for the benefit of the profession as well as a demonstration to the Service Dog community that she understands how hurtful her actions were.

Since the blog post and firestorm happened on a weekend I’m sure there will be more to come from this story. We will post an update if more information becomes available.

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