International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

Educate Your Community

November 2002

IAADP's Note: This Op Ed piece was developed by the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations [CADO]. Representatives from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), Guide Dog Users, Inc. (GDUI) and Assistance Dogs International (ADI) took part in drafting this educational editorial. We want to give our members and other individuals and groups in the assistance dog community who share our concerns, the opportunity to take an active role in educating the public about the differences between a pet and an assistance dog. It is "current" through 2004, so don't view this request as "old news."

If you support our position, please consider submitting a copy of this to your local newspaper. Check with them by phone for details on how to submit an Op Ed piece to their publication. Together, we can make a difference!

To the Editor:

Most of us take for granted the following scene. A man gets off a bus, crosses a busy city street and goes into a restaurant to meet a business partner at their usual table. Meanwhile, a woman recovers her keys from the floor of the nearby parking garage and opens her minivan door. Another woman turns to answer a coworker's question in the busy copier room of a nearby office. People do these tasks every day. Some people do them through the eyes, ears and paws of specially trained dogs.

The guide dog follows the directional commands of his handler and leads the blind man across a street and locates the restaurant door then follows the waiter through the mass of tables to a seat. The man can move easily and does not have to hang onto someone's arm or worry about running into anyone. The service dog retrieves the car keys from the garage floor and puts them in the woman's lap. This same woman cannot reach the ground from her wheelchair without help. She has waited hours in cold dark parking garages before whenever she dropped her keys. The deaf woman in the noisy copier room is alerted to the fact that a coworker is calling her name. Her hearing dog gets her attention with a nose nudge, then leads her to the person who wants to speak to her. She is now able to read the employee's lips and jots a quick response to his question on a piece of paper. Her coworkers never used to be able to ask her anything because they couldn't get her attention.

These are all small acts of daily life but they are made possible because of the special training some dogs receive to assist their disabled owners to function more independently. A long civil rights battle dating back to the first Seeing Eye dog has resulted in the passage of state and federal laws which permit disabled people in the USA to work with specially trained canine assistants in places where ordinary pets are not allowed.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates how much work it takes to turn a dog into a canine assistant. Those who train assistance dogs, from large guide dog schools to one-person service dog providers to individuals with disabilities themselves, face a growing tide of people who do not understand the true nature of the service animal concept.

Because of all the media coverage about the therapeutic health benefits of pet ownership, some people think that Fido or Fluffy, whose only training may consist of reliably making it outside to do its business, suddenly has the same legal status as a guide dog if the owner is diagnosed with any kind of health problem or emotional problem.

Such a conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of how disabled you have to be to qualify for access with a service animal and the type of training that is necessary.

Assistance dogs or any other service animal must be individually trained to perform identifiable tasks. The handler must have a physical or mental condition that severely impairs major life functions such as the ability to see, hear, walk, breathe, work, learn or think. Businesses now have the right to ask a handler what special tasks the animal is trained to perform if uncertain if it is a pet or a service animal.

Dogs that protect, attack or defend people on command are not service animals, and pets are not service animals.

Many readers of this publication contribute generously to the organizations that breed, raise and train assistance dogs. The nearly 20,000 handlers of such dogs in the United States ask you to help us educate medical professionals and the public about the difference between a pet or therapeutic animal and a legitimate assistance dog. Writing a prescription for a pet does not transform Fluffy or Fido into a service animal. The mere presence of an animal for personal defense or emotional comfort does not qualify it to be considered a service animal. A reduction in stress, improved cardiovascular fitness and other health benefits from walking, petting or playing with a dog does not justify labeling the animal a service animal. Only dogs which have been trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate a severely disabling condition can legally qualify as service animals. It is the special training the dog receives that is the litmus test of legitimacy.

Honor the special work our assistance dogs do and the independence and freedom we gain from them. Recognize that pets are beneficial but they don't have the kind of training legally required for public access rights. This letter comes from an effort of the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations (CADO). It also comes from (your name and dog's name here).

Include your name and other necessary information for your local newspaper.