I’ve become used to words having multiple meanings. Usually the context for the word helps to untangle the user’s intention, but I recently encountered an exception to this: the word “service” when applied to dogs.
There is an oddity in US law and parlance which turns the idea of service on its head. Instead of the service being perceived from the point of view of the work of the provider of the service, some people are perceiving it from the point of view of the feelings of the recipient. Usually, the provider of the services knows that they are doing work that benefits others; restaurant workers, hotel housekeepers, soldiers, and so on. The same is true of a service dog that has been specifically trained to perform a function on behalf of its owner. It knows what it is doing, why it is doing it, and for whom the work is being done.
Some people, though, have taken the ambiguity of the word “service” and are using it to their advantage. They are grateful that their pets make them feel good, and they are very fond of the animals. As such, they think, the dogs are providing them with a service, hence they can define them as service dogs. I disagree.
When I was volunteering at the film festival recently, a man came in every day with a small dog that was wearing a service animal vest. Its owner did not have any apparent disability. One of the other volunteers wanted to tell the dog’s owner that dogs are not allowed in the theatre, but the manager prevented that. She said that we could ask only “Is this a service animal?” and “What is the service that the animal is trained to perform?” If answer to the first question was that this was a service animal, the answer to the second question was irrelevant. We had to allow admission to the theatre. We were left with the unsettling feeling that we were being conned and the infuriating understanding that we could do nothing about it.
Less than two weeks later, there was a hearing at the Board of the homeowners association where I live. It was to meet and question the owner of a very large dog that had been seen off leash in the courtyard and whose owner had not picked up after him. The association permits dogs that weigh 35 lbs, and this dog was by the owner’s admission about 80 lbs. So, the dog’s owner appeared to have broken three of the association’s rules.
As the dog bounded about the room, sniffing at everyone, we were all taken aback when the dog’s owner, with a grin, told us that it was a service dog. She also produced a doctor’s prescription indicating that she suffered from separation anxiety and the dog was to provide a therapeutic service. I was not convinced.
After the owner and dog left the meeting, we were advised by the property manager that there was nothing we could do except to ask the owner to pick up after the dog, keep it on a leash, and put the service dog’s vest on the animal to show its status to other residents. There was collective disgruntlement, but also a sort of frustrated resignation. This amazed me because, as a visitor to the US, I have found Americans generally to be very indignant when they think they are being cheated and very assertive in crying “foul” when necessary. In this matter, though, they seem to have raised the white flag.
Subsequently, I went online to do a little research. I found that it takes only a couple of minutes and $129 to buy a service dog’s certification and vest. I also found that there are a variety of laws around this, and they are sometimes contradictory. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act states that service dogs must be trained to perform a particular function, and they do not include emotional therapy dogs among them. The Fair Housing Act, on the other hand, does.
When legitimate service dogs must train for years, it infuriates me that unscrupulous people can piggy-back on their work to allow pets to receive the same benefits. It’s not about how the dog makes you feel; it’s about how the dog enables you to live. If you can go to the movies or walk in the courtyard without your dog, it’s not a service dog. It’s a pet.