Seeing that a Pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.

John Calvin


I had a client a few years ago who was referred to me by a colleague in animal rescue. This colleague described how a dog in her apartment building is a service dog owned by a woman in a wheelchair, and that the dog was showing signs of being protective of the owner, even snapping occasionally when people would pass the duo in the hallways of their building.  Yes, I have heard of this happening before, but it’s pretty uncommon for a service dog to act in this manner.  I decided to go ahead and work with the dog and owner.

I left angrier than I have been in a very, very long time.

The dog, who we’ll call Shadow, was a lovely mutt of possible shepherd origin.  She was super sweet in the apartment when I met her.  Outside the apartment was a different matter entirely.  Shadow’s owner described how the dog would growl, snap and lunge at anyone who came to close (within 3 feet) to the wheelchair.  She wasn’t reliably following commands.  Sure she was a super-sweet dog, but her neighbors were frightened of this beast, and rightfully so!  I asked what brought about the change in Shadow’s behavior, and what the service dog organization she had obtained Shadow from had to say about all this.

“We got her from the APL.  We started to do service dog training ourselves, but then we got busy.”

And I have an appendix that needs to come out, so I started reading online how to do it, and I think I’ve got the gist of how to do it myself.

Of course Shadow can be rehabilitated so she would stop growling and snapping at people who passed her by, provided her owner would answer Shadow’s questions:  “Is this guy going to hurt us Mommy?  Is that woman scaring you, Mommy?”  That was the kicker.  Shadow had a lot of questions.  She was born that way, and that way is perfectly fine.  Shadow just happens to need a very confident Pilot.  What Shadow’s owner did was decide that she wanted a service dog, didn’t want to pay for the time and effort it takes to properly prepare a dog like that for a very high-stress job, and then didn’t even follow through with whatever half-baked training regime she had decided.  But she still wanted to service dog, so she slapped a vest on the poor, overwhelmed dog and called the job done.  She didn’t want a service dog:  she wanted a dog she could take everywhere that other dogs aren’t allowed.  A self-confidence boost at the expense of a frightened, overwhelmed dog.

I’m not saying that Shadow didn’t provide her service.  I’ve seen plenty of people with PTSD who have service dogs who provide the mental support they so desperately need, making them active, healthy members of society again.  I see no difference between medicine you take with a glass of water and the “medicine” a service dog can give.  Both allow you to live life as normally as possible. But both require restraint and savvy when used. It’s not, “Well, I’ve got a disability, and the APL has dogs, let’s go adopt my new service dog today!”

But not all dogs are meant to be put into these stressful lines of work.  The problem with a dog is that they will do it anyway.  They’re too loyal.  It’s like the stories you hear in the news where Child Services finds a 7-year old child who is essentially the care-taker for an alcoholic/drug addicted/mentally ill mother.  The child is not mentally equipped or mature enough to handle the situation, but guess what?  It’s mommy, so the child is going to do the best they can, usually causing damage to their own psyche in the process.

Service dogs are chosen because they can handle  stress.  Then they are trained so they have the mental tools to handle those unique stresses that come with being a service dog:  tools in their toolbox for when on a loud, scary airplane.  How to handle a gregarious stranger.  What to do when Mommy needs help.  These aren’t things that just naturally happen to a dog!  These dogs need to learn how to cope with these situations, not just blindly throwing them into the line of fire and hoping for the best because, well, you want a service dog!

Poor Shadow.  I did the best I could for her.  I showed her mommy how to answer Shadow’s questions.  I tried to drum into her head that this dog was not suitable for any service beyond undying love and devotion.  That wasn’t an answer her mom wanted to hear. She wanted Shadow to be her service dog.  But that really doesn’t make her a mom, then, does it?  Moms never put their wants before their child’s needs.

An article I stumbled across recently summed it up perfectly.  The dog’s name is Darwin (yes, Darwin – I actually found the article when a client sent it to me after mistyping Darwin Dogs into her computer, looking for our web page).   Darwin started off as a dog for the deaf, but during rigorous training, it was decided that Darwin would not thrive in that atmosphere.  Square peg, round hole.  So Darwin was moved to a facility to where he learned to be an insulin alert dog.  He is now the guardian of Laura, a little girl in Texas.  Here’s what Darwin, the insulin alert dog, has to say about the difference between service dogs and “service” dogs:

I am not “whatever” about fake service dogs.

Top ten ways one can tell a “service dog” is a fake:

10. The dog is not on leash. I mean, the leash is to keep the dog safe…not the humans. There are a lot of dumb humans out there. Fake service dog owners don’t get this. They think, my dog is so nice and sweet he won’t do anything to anyone…..ugh.

9. The dog is not well groomed. If the dog looks and smells like a pet it probably is. Real handlers take pride in their four legged partners.  They know we will be in public, and have to have the same level of grooming most humans have.  (In my case, more…I smell good)

8. The dog jumps up on random people. I mean, come on. Pet dogs shouldn’t even do that. Have some class.

7. The dog is in the way. Real service dogs have been trained to get out of the way. That means in the middle of a large crowd, me, a 75 lb black lab, can pretty much disappear. I was trained to do that. It’s great when we go places and people gasp when they see me, because they have been right next to me for an hour and they didn’t even know!  “I didn’t even know there was a dog here” = “My puppy raisers and trainers did their job well!”

6. The dog has a huge vest with lots of official looking patches. Over kill? Compensating? Yeah. The handler should be able to regulate the random petting and other such infractions from the humans. Train the dog not the entire public! Professionally trained service dogs are issued with vests. Demure vests. We don’t need to shout that we are trained. We can whisper. We are that good.

5. The dog eats everything off the ground. As much as I would LOVE to do this, it’s just not right. And it’s not safe. And it’s not healthy. Fake service dogs and their owners just think it’s cute. As if.

4. The dog drags the handler around. Pet peeve of mine. Like who wants to drag their human around anyways? Oh yeah, common pets. That’s who. Service dogs have more important things to do than drag a human around. Like alerting on high and low blood sugars.  Or actually performing a SERVICE!

3. The dog is anxious. Nervous. Obviously uncomfortable in public. Real service dogs are trained by their puppy raisers and other trainers to handle many different situations. They train us  so we are calm. Relaxed. Chilled. Everywhere. Essentially, they train us to be “whatever”.  (I just had a jump start since I was born “whatever”)  If these humans knew they were making their fake service dogs nervous and anxious maybe they would think twice about trying to pass them off as real. It’s really abusive if you ask me. (Btw the mom met Temple Grandin. Yes the Temple Grandin. There was a guy with a fake service dog in line and Temple told him to get the dog out of there because it was nervous and scared! Go Temple! She can spot a fake quickly! She gets animals for sure.)

2. The dogs owner is hyper aggressive about public access. They walk in the door demanding access. It’s as if they know they are fakes and have to preempt someone exposing them. Come on. A real service dogs handler is calm. Cool and collected. They know the rules and can demonstrate that their trained dog belongs whenever they are going. Even when a real service dogs handler is denied access they know to remain calm. They turn it into a teachable moment. (if the human they are trying to educate isn’t smart enough though….then the mom has to call the DOJ about ADA issues.  Ugh…that’s never fun)

1. ***My original post here had to do with heeling, and walking on the left.  This was based on the fakes that I have seen.   But I realized now (after some nice, and some not nice messages), that there are some CCI dogs and dogs that need to walk on the right due to needs of their handlers.  Ok, so either side, as long as they behave…..so its obvious they are legit.

I’m so not whatever about this. This topic annoys me for so many reasons. I spent 14 months with puppy raisers who were loving but strict. I was educated at the Harvard of obedience and diabetic alert schools. For two years of my life I trained to be able to handle all that the human world has to throw at me. And I handle it with grace. Every day.

Fake service dogs are educated, if at all, at the equivalent of mail away schools for what seems to be an ineffective few months. Some are just simply pets. I’m not knocking my pet dog brothers and sisters. But they just can’t handle the human world. These humans are a lot to deal with.

Karma. Karma is real people.  If you need a service dog, make sure you have a real one.  Don’t ruin it for everyone by having a misbehaved “service” dog.  It’s just not right……  

Off to do some blood glucose alerting…..

Laura and Darwin, her glucose alert dog.  Quite an enchanting pair.

Laura and Darwin, her glucose alert dog. Quite an enchanting pair.

You can read all about Darwin’s exploits into the world of being a service dog and a little girl’s hero here.  It’s truly an entertaining, warm and funny read.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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