Guest Commentary

‘Legitimacy’ of a service dog isn’t always apparent

Don’t make assumptions about service dogs. People with invisible disabilities sometimes need them.
Don’t make assumptions about service dogs. People with invisible disabilities sometimes need them. AP

We have all seen them — dogs in retail stores, restaurants and many other public places. But what do we really understand about why people with disabilities might have service animals with them?

It is estimated that service dogs have existed since around 13,000 B.C., for many purposes — performing domestic tasks, or assisting in law enforcement and combat situations. Today, they help people with disabilities participate in their communities and government. They have proven their invaluable place among mankind throughout the world. It is beyond dispute that they are indeed man’s best friend.

But still there remains great misunderstanding about, discrimination against, and hostility toward people with disabilities using service dogs — most notably when those people have disabilities that are invisible.

When we think of a service dog, it’s likely the first image that comes to mind is of a person who is blind being led by a German shepherd or Labrador retriever. We don’t think of a poodle, corgi, chihuahua or Pomeranian. And when we do see these small breeds in public, we may cast serious doubt on the need for the dog to be there, especially if we do not see an overt physical disability in its handler.

As early as the 18th century, service dogs were used to assist people with invisible disabilities, including mental illness, depression and psychiatric disorders. Around 1997, the use of service dogs broadened to children with autistism. And while service dogs assisted World War I veterans, it was not until Iraq and Afghanistan vets began using them that society moved toward acceptance — so long as their handlers were in the military. But others continue to face discriminatory attitudes.

In 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to include service dogs for people with invisible disabilities. The Missouri Governor’s Council on Disabilities names five distinct categories: guide dogs, mobility dogs, hearing dogs, seizure alert/seizure response dogs and medical alert/medical response dogs. The ADA National Network points out that psychiatric conditions are among the most common disabilities the act covers.

In June 2017, the National Institutes of Health reported a trend of accusing people with invisible disabilities of fraudulently calling their dogs service animals. There appear to be two reasons for this: First, some business owners object to dogs in their establishments. Second, some media outlets fixate on high-profile cases as the norm, even though there is no empirical evidence showing a systemic issue exists.

Nineteen states have enacted laws that could inadvertently target people with invisible disabilities. In the 2018 legislative session, Missouri nearly became the 20th with House Bill 2031, which sought to make it a criminal offense to falsely identify a dog as a service animal “with a harness, collar, vest, or sign of the type commonly used by a person with a disability.”

The bill also sought to force people with invisible disabilities to put their dogs through so-called “professional training,” even though this explicitly and implicitly violates the ADA. The U.S. Department of Justice’s own list of frequently asked questions notes that service dog owners and handlers are authorized under the act to train their own dogs.

It would also have disenfranchised those with low incomes. It can take up to two years and $40,000 for a dog to be trained at a professional training center.

Unlike emotional support dogs, which are a different category, service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners or handlers. That work can range from opening doors to providing medication, alerting to dangerous situations, protecting their handlers during or after seizures, or redirecting the handler’s attention and helping them calm down when suffering from anxiety, a panic attack or post-traumatic stress disorder.

All of us, lawmakers included, need to be far less judgmental. Service dogs should not be only for people who are wealthy, well-connected or have overt physical disabilities.

Christopher Cross is a court-appointed legal guardian and advocate in Springfield, Mo.