Max drags a laundry basket over to Charlie Bales and passes her clothes as she loads the washing machine.
Max, a German shepherd, also shuts off the lights, opens the fridge and picks up items Bales drops on the ground – tasks that the Spokane resident has a hard time
performing because of pain that often relegates her to a wheelchair.
“It is an incredible partnership,” Bales said of her service dog. “I got terribly lucky with Max.”
The use of service animals is on the rise, as they assist with a widening scope of disabilities beyond blindness. They also fill a growing need for care created by an aging population and a flood of wounded military veterans returning from war.
But with greater use comes greater skepticism, advocates of service animals say. Some pet owners abuse service animal laws and the public’s general tolerance of such animals, much to the annoyance and frustration of those who need them.
The guide dog is so ingrained in Americans’ minds that Bales said people often tell their children when they see her with Max, “that dog helps that woman see.”
When that happens, she thinks to herself, “That’s funny. I drove here.”
Guide dogs have been used in the U.S. for more than 70 years, but they make up just a portion of service animals. Animals now are used to help humans who have seizure disorders, diabetes, heart problems, mental illness, hearing loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and mobility issues.
There’s no certification or registration process, so “we really just don’t have a good handle on the numbers,” said Bill Kueser, vice president of marketing at Pet Partners, a Bellevue-based nonprofit that advocates the use of service and therapy animals.
The only requirement is that the disability is recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the animal performs a task that assists with the disability, he said.
“What we can say, I believe, about the increase of service animals is that they are being trained to assist with more and more different kinds of disabilities,” Kueser said.
The public’s skepticism of service animals may be compounded by their increasing use for disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent.
“It’s easy for people to understand or accept that someone with a physical disability needs an animal, and everybody gets the Seeing Eye dog,” said Marley Hochendoner, executive director of the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance. “There’s been … less understanding among the public for people with psychological disabilities.”
Service animals defined
Under the ADA, a service animal must be either a dog or a miniature horse. The horses, which weigh between 70 and 100 pounds, are uncommon, though they’re growing in popularity, Kueser said.
The animal’s “life span is longer than a dog’s life span,” he said, which can be attractive because it’s so costly and time-consuming to train a service animal.
The ADA law was revised in 2010 to specify the two kinds of approved service animals; before that a number of other animals, such as monkeys, could be used.
Under the ADA, allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access to service animals or refusing service to people using the animals. In addition, establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
But service animals are often confused with emotional support animals and therapy animals, both of which have different uses and legal rights.
An emotional support animal usually provides comfort rather than performing specific tasks. It does not have rights to public access – restaurants, malls, movie theaters, hospitals and other public places – but does have access to housing under the Fair Housing Act.
A therapy animal helps people in retirement homes, hospitals and doctors’ offices, and the people helped aren’t necessarily disabled. Like emotional support animals, they have no rights to public access.
Therapy and emotional support animals can be many types of domesticated animals.
“I think that there’s a lot of confusion around what categorizes as a service animal,” Kueser said. “(People) will often be questioned about whether the animal is indeed a service animal.”
Bales said a service animal can cost $30,000 to $50,000 over a lifetime because of the extensive training needed.
Government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover the cost. That leaves many people dependent on charitable programs such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, which does not charge for the dogs it provides. Other organizations offer reduced fees through public and private donations.
Dogs can be program-trained or owner-trained. Program-trained dogs are more prevalent, but owner-trained dogs are on the upswing.
“The programs can’t keep up with the demand,” Bales said.
Businesses confused about rights
The biggest frustration for Carol Byrnes, a certified professional dog trainer with Spokane-based Diamonds in the Ruff, is people who try to abuse service animal laws, straining people’s general acceptance of service animals, she said.
While Byrnes mostly trains pets, she is working with Bales to develop a class to inform business owners, landlords and service animal owners to try to clear up the confusion.
“I get calls every day from somebody who really doesn’t need a service dog” but wants to know how to get their pet designated a service animal, she said. “There are a lot of people that get a vest and they put them on their dogs,” but the dogs aren’t properly trained for the job and they sometimes act up in public places.
“That’s really unfair to every disabled person that’s needed a dog for valid reasons,” Byrnes said.
The vests are not required, but some owners choose to put them on their service animal to let people know it’s not a pet.
Byrnes also said people are often confused about their rights as business owners when people bring animals into a public place.
“I think that businesses feel taken advantage of because they don’t know the laws, either,” she said. “They make the wrong decision as far as letting people in who shouldn’t be, or driving people out who shouldn’t be, because they just don’t know.”
Hochendoner, of the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, said people sometimes try to abuse the law to gain access to housing where pets aren’t allowed by claiming a pet is a service animal. Landlords are allowed to ask for verification that the animal is a service animal. A doctor, social worker, therapist or another person who works with the disabled person can vouch for the animal.
“I’m sure that happens,” she said. “Invariably there will be people that take advantage of the system. But the system is in place because there are a lot of people that need it and truly benefit from it.”
Discrimination against those with service animals also occurs.
Eight of 12 tests conducted by the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance at rental agencies showed service animal discrimination in the year that ended in March, according to Hochendoner.
The state Human Rights Commission reported 54 complaints of discrimination based on having a service animal from 2007 to 2011, the most recent data available.
‘Not every dog can do it’
Service animals have very stressful jobs.
“There’s no certification for service dogs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not held to a high standard of behavior when they’re out doing their job,” Byrnes said. “The average pet dog really isn’t cut out for the job. People have real misconception about what a service dog is.”
A good service dog is a hard worker by nature and eager to learn, said Bales. It can be any breed, depending on the disability.
“It’s not the breed or the size,” she said. “It’s what the person needs to have mitigated and the training and temperament.”
The animal needs to stay focused on the job – it can be a matter of life and death to the human – so it should be “pretty bomb proof,” Bales said.
“They have to be good with people, be good with crowds, be good with sounds,” Bales said. “What you’re looking for is a dog that can take everything in stride and not be bothered by it. Very little can startle them. If they do get startled, they recover well.”
She said people often disturb the dog while it’s trying to do its job, thinking it’s no different than a pet.
“Reaching out and touching the guide dog is the same as reaching out and poking the person in the eyes,” she said. “That is their eyes. You’re putting that person in serious danger. Don’t make sounds at it. Don’t touch it. Don’t make eye contact with the dog. The dog has got a job. All of that can be stressful.”
Service animals perform a wide range of actions on behalf of their humans.
Some dogs, called “naturals,” can detect an oncoming seizure, though scientists still haven’t figured out exactly how. When a person has a seizure, the dog might roll them on their side so they don’t choke on their vomit, clear vomit from their mouth if needed, lick their face to wake them up or go for help.
Some can detect when a person is going to have a diabetic episode. The animal might retrieve insulin and juice from a refrigerator, or go get help.
A dog can also remind a person with a mental illness to take their medication.
“It takes a special dog to do the job,” Byrnes said. “Not every dog can do it.”