In Service to Others

Your pet is not vested as a service animal

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

If I hang a keg around the neck of my dachshund does that make him a Saint Bernard, or he still just bratwurst and beer?

Seriously, we love our pets and they help us in innumerable and indescribable ways—physically, emotionally and spiritually. They bring support and joy, and oftentimes make life worth living. The love they give is unconditional and startling. We want to take them with us everywhere. But if I put an orange vest on Gertrude, does that mean I can take her everywhere?

Not exactly; although if she’s a good girl, maybe so and surprisingly often so.

Service animals are specially trained for the purpose of assisting or accommodating a person with a disability. Service animals are not pets, although they certainly can be loved as much as any pet. A service animal is defined in law as “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

It’s an intentionally broad and inclusive set of criteria, based on the generous understanding of the calming and secure presence of animals in our lives. They are our eyes, our ears, our guides and in many cases our emotional anchor in times of anxiety, panic, distress or fear.

Under state and federal law, and specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities are allowed to bring service animals into places of public accommodation such as businesses, medical facilities, government offices, buses and transit, and other areas open to the general public. Service animals are welcome and cannot be excluded, but are sometimes restricted in food establishments. Other businesses may also decline to permit animals other than trained service animals.

Dressing for dinner is not a requirement. You may be surprised to learn that according to the ADA, service animals are not required to wear a vest at all, in fact they are not required to have any identification at all. But just as a service animal is not required to wear a dinner jacket, neither does a natty vest make your pet a service animal.

State law says the work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. The emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship our furred friends provide do not make them service animals under the law.

When you see a dog working as a service animal, leave her alone. She is not a pet, and she has a job to do.

Last session, the Washington Legislature found that too many misrepresentations of pets or emotional support companions as service animals has made it harder for people with disabilities to get acceptance of their properly trained and essential service animals. New law limits the definition of “service animal” and imposes a fine for misrepresenting an adorable amateur as a trained professional. You can’t just take your tomcat out for surf-and-turf.

But training is the key concept, it really is.

Businesses may ask for a service animal to be removed if her handler cannot control her behavior. Untrained behavior may also prompt questions about the specific service of the animal, and what tasks she is trained to perform.

Owners must be able to effectively control their service animal, and if asked to do so owners must describe what task the service animal is trained to do. This is the law.

If your dog is well-trained, quiet and obedient, oftentimes these questions will not arise. But if you can’t satisfactorily answer these questions, private businesses—like a restaurant, a theater, a beer garden, a church—are within their rights to ask you and your pet to leave.

In Washington, there is no accrediting body to monitor organizations who train service animals. You don’t need to have a license to demonstrate your pet is obedient and well controlled.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is an organization whose mission is to ensure a service animal organization provides quality standards where “dogs are treated humanely, clients are treated with respect and dignity and training is delivered in a professional way at all times.” There are many others, including organizations that specifically train animals to assist veterans, victims of domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorders. Many times these animals are adopted from shelters, which creates a wonderful boundless symmetry between being rescued and returned to rescue others.

So confidentially, just between you and me, the real issue is how your pet behaves in public more than the strictest legal limitations of how your pet is in service to you. Understand, businesses are allowed to ask about the service your companion is performing for you; and they’re allowed within reason to restrict your companion in their business. But if your companion is not acting out, your pet will be adored almost everywhere. And speaking of everywhere, there are many, many places in Whatcom and Skagit counties that can help train your companion so she is quiet and obedient in public, and fully in service to you.

The Whatcom Humane Society is a terrific resource to start, and most pet suppliers like PetStop are great places for more information.

Read the new restrictions on service animals at

This article was included in the Cascadia Pet Guide.

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