Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pack-age Deal

Yesterday was move-in day for my college student. With our arms laden with stuff, and Belle at my side we waited patiently for the very slow elevator in her high rise apartment complex to arrive. Belle, dressed in her pack, put on an awesome display of her best skills based on my voice cues alone as we navigated the crowds of students, parents and gear. As always, her amazing performance captivated those around us.

In situations like this one, Belle and I have a lot of informal opportunities for educating the public on her purpose and her role as a demonstration dog for Helping Paws. Yesterday, we also had a chance to address an issue that is a growing concern for accredited assistance dog training programs; the proclivity of vendors and customers that believe that the presence of the pack and a "registration card" is all that is required for a dog to be granted public access. Googling *service dog vests* results in over 188,000 links - most of which are to vendors that sell the packs.

This is what the first of these vendors had to say about assistance dog public access requirements:

Getting Started is Easy:

We simply require that a Service Dog is registered. Our company requires that you supply:

  • A doctor's request that this individual has a medical need for a “Service Dog”.
  • A Veterinarian's signed statement that your service dog is not considered to be vicious or in any way a threat to the general public.
  • Proof of the shots and vaccinations, etc. that are required to keep the dog in good health.
Simply click on the link below, follow the prompts, and submit the completed forms to us with your payment of $49.95 + 1.50 S/H. Your custom created ID Card Package will be sent out within three (3) business days.

Why is this a problem? The answer lies in what is NOT required in the list above. The training required for a dog to meet the exceptionally high standards essential for dogs working in public places.

A fully trained assistance dog trained through an accredited training program has spent up to three years of increasingly complex training and passed a series of public access tests before they are matched with a partner. They are taught a level of attention skills that are critical to tuning out the sights, smells, and sounds that would distract a family pet or even a dog that had completed basic obedience classes. In addition to phenomenal attention skills, the dogs are taught a wide variety of skills that meet their human partner's every day needs, but also just as important, skills that keep their human partner, themselves, and the general public safe. Once placed with their partners, the dog and their partner are required to retake the public access tests at pre-determined intervals to ensure both dog and partner continue to meet the highest standard of public partnership.

The general public has enough trouble understanding what the access laws allow. Our graduates are challenged too often when they work with their dogs in the ordinary course of their everyday lives. And so, with my arms laden with boxes, having waited a painful amount of time for that elevator, I spent several more minutes explaining to the student who remarked to her friend upon disembarking from the elevator, "oh sweet, a service dog. My boyfriend just bought a pack on line for his puppy and now he can take the puppy with him everywhere" why that statement not only wasn't true, but how harmful that perception could be to those who require these invaluable dogs and have waited and worked hard to meet and complete the highest standards of accredited assistance dog programs.

With any luck, our conversation will be the one lesson she and her friend will retain and pass on to their friends and fellow students. And they didn't even have to hit up their parents to pay for it.