“Just because someone’s toy poodle makes them feel good, doesn’t make them a certified service dog,” says Corey Hudson, the Chief Executive Officer of Canine Companions for Independence of Santa Rosa, which trains highly-skilled dogs to help persons with disabilities.
In Sonoma County, it is common place to see the blue-vested dogs helping persons in wheelchairs. The dog goes through a rigorous 18-month training program. The handler is required to take classes on canine care and training. The handler/dog teams are tested by members of the Assistance Dog International, which sets national standards for service dog certification. Once the dog/handler teams pass an access test, they are given an ID card identifying the dog as a “certified service dog.”
But another increasingly common way people obtain a service dog is by adopting a pet, going on the Internet and buying a vest that says “Service Dog.” They then go to Sonoma County Animal Care and Control office in north Santa Rosa, where with little inquiry, a service dog tag can be obtained.
Service dog tags easy to get
It is the service dog tag that allows people to take their dogs to places most dogs are not allowed, like the grocery store or to a restaurant.
One dog has months of training and the other may not know how to sit on command, but both can wear a service dog tag. It’s perfectly legal in California and has been for more than 10 years. But lately, requests for service dog tags have been increasing in many Bay Area counties.
That upsets the people who have spent years creating standards for service dog training programs. Hudson accuses people who get service dog tags for a dog who has had little training of “violating the spirit of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act.) I get revved up about this time again and looking for a way to remedy this. Ideally, we should have an equivalent of a DMV for service dogs,” but Hudson admits adding another regulatory agency amid shrinking state budgets is very unlikely.
Federal law prevents inquiries for assistance dogs
Amy Cooper, Director of Sonoma County Animal Care and Control, says they have little regulatory control over who is getting service dog tags. Federal law prevents inquiring as to the nature of the dog’s service or the disability involved.
Cooper admits her hands are tied. “My understanding is that we at the county can’t require “proof” that the animal performs any specific service duty – and the animal does not even have to be a dog. It is a VERY broad category. We do have applicant fill out an “affidavit of assistance dog owner,” where they declare that the dog is a service, guide or signal dog. We can request, but cannot require a doctor’s note. And they are not required to buy a license for a “service dog.’”
The federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA) trumps state or local regulation of service, guide or signal dogs. Although California penal code does allow for prosecution should someone knowingly claim to have a service, guide or signal dog and not need it. But it’s a Catch-22, animal control officers are prevented by federal law from even asking the very questions that would provide evidence of a violation.
Violating the spirit of ADA
Service dog tags provide access, and the unscrupulous know that.
“Somebody sent me a cut/paste out of craigslist that said if you want to take your pet anywhere in the county and are tired of getting hassled, just go to animal control and tell them you have an assistance dog,” says Hudson. “Our concern has always been who is handing them out and who is getting them.”
Hudson admits not all service dogs need to come from accredited service dog programs. “I have mixed emotions about It. We have no objections to people who have a highly trained dog who have done so privately. Yes, there are going to exceptions. We are creating standards for the greater good,” he says.
The waiting list for a service dog from an organization like Canine Companions for Independence can be one year. A daunting wait to some.
One Sebastopol man, who battles anxiety, relies on his dog to get him out of the house for daily walks. This is a well-mannered mutt who has had no special training. This dog provides a service to this man.
Hudson says the battle over what he calls “well intentioned state law” is for another day.