Over the past week or two I have had on multiple occasions the wonderful pleasure —- yes pleasure because education of others is always a positive— of being questioned condescendingly, shouted at, and passive aggressively laughed at about Zelda. For those of you that do not know, Zelda is being trained as a Service Animal, and I am happy to say her core task that is required of her she is already capable of and getting more receptive each day (even surprising me).
I do attribute that to her training classes, but also my early bonding with her from the time she was about 6-8 weeks old after she unfortunately lost her mother a day after birth— she is attached to me and receptive. However I still say “In Training” because she is young and all dogs need consistent training & refreshers and I plan on training her to do more service animal tasks.
As a precursor to the following I will acknowledge that there are many “fake” service animals put forth that serve no purpose besides companionship, never will and these people are often able to get away with it. Is it right? No. HOWEVER—- in the United States there is no set formal training for a service animal (each dog is different and each handler has their own needs), nor is there a required/regulated certificate as people claim on the internet, and lastly while service animals are usually wearing a vest they are NOT required to. What does this mean? This means on one hand it makes people who need service animals able to more easily afford their partner (formally trained animals can cost 10k or sometimes more to purchase) and choose a partner that fits their lifestyle/needs better. On the other hand it also leaves the door open for those just trying to game the system. My view is this: Are fake service animals wrong? Yes- if they are misbehaving and run around biting, growling, defecating and showing destructive behavior you are harming the reputation of service animals who would never behave that way. Should you assume every service animal you see is fake? No. I would much rather assume that you are genuine and truthful with your needs for a service animal until you (or rather your dog) prove otherwise, than embarrass you and cause you further stress which could even trigger your disability that you have the service animal for! If a dog is not being disruptive (also keep in mind depending on the disability the dog’s task could be to disrupt the person’s negative behavior, bark to alert for help or help their owner) and especially if it is not your place of business— mind your manners and keep your mouth shut. Pretty much: Live and Let Live is a good policy to have. Do not yell, feed, touch or play with a service animal even if “only in training” without speaking to the handler— more than likely they will deny your request if the dog is wearing their vest. It’s not a reflection of you, it’s the standard to help the dog focus and keep their training intact.
Okay, moving on. Overall I have had such positive experiences with Zelda in public, please do not misunderstand. Businesses like Costco, Walmart, Target, the mall, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, 24-hr fitness, Restaurants etc all welcome her, smile and wave— some associates even know her by name but politely resist the urge to pet her. Legally a place of business can ask you, “Is that a service animal? What tasks can he/she perform?”…they CANNOT ask you why you require a service animal. Many businesses choose to use the good faith method to avoid their employees asking inappropriate questions and opening the door for lawsuits. I am lucky enough to reside in California, specifically Los Angeles, where people (and businesses) just seem more progressive when it comes to service animals, service animals in training, and letting others “be” in general. Here places honestly don’t even ask me further than “is she a service dog?”. I know it is not the same in other states and can be quite difficult.
The negative experiences I have received have ALL been from individuals who I must assume have minimal knowledge of service animal rights, appropriate questioning or are just rude. It is okay to not be knowledgable about something foreign to you. Its is NOT okay to be ignorant and disparage the efforts or lifestyle of a service animal— it does more harm than you realize.
I don’t need to provide an extensive medical history for you, however I pride myself on being open when it is warranted or could assist in education. This is one of those times. Disabilities (although I dislike that word) are not always visible. I experience extreme anxiety, bouts of depression, and panic attacks. My panic attacks have been so severe in the past that it is not rare for my arms and legs to go numb causing paralysis. The first time this happened I was hospitalized for a week and had no warning or trigger for the event— I was unable to move my arms or legs for about 6 hours. Since then I have learned to understand the initial sensations when it is coming on and am able to sit or lay down for a period— drawing little attention to myself until it passes. It has never lasted as long as it did the first time. Over the course of the past year I learned about the help that a service animal can provide for these conditions. I proceeded to quietly research and then I found Zelda. She is my beautiful, smart, saving grace each day when I wake up. I have put so much time, love, energy, and (a lot of) money into my partner. So yes, it is very hurtful when people act ignorantly.
Here is a real-life perfect example of inappropriate behaviors in relation to service animals::
Yesterday evening I was at the off-leash dog park I often frequent with Zelda. She loves being able to run with the other dogs, take a break from “work” (surprise! Just like the rest of us— its her version of Friday happy hour if you will!) without her vest on, and lay around outside in the sun. We usually go to the large dog area and see the same people and dogs almost everyday. Its awesome and she has tons of friends. Yesterday we were meeting up with another dog for a playdate— this dog has been with Zelda through obedience training and they love each other, but the other dog is quite shy around other dogs besides Zelda and is still learning confidence. Because of this we went to the “timid” dog area. These dogs still play but not so rough and tumble, which is fine with Zelda— she is just happy to be with her friend. I was having a private conversation with the mom of Zelda’s play date about service animal training, needs, and tasks. She asked to genuinely try to gain knowledge and since I have known her for awhile I felt open to sharing my experience honestly. At this point a woman about 20 feet or more away from me (I am not exaggerating) proceeded to yell out “So you have a Fake service animal? You know they have to be well behaved for that?” in the MOST condescending tone. Keep in mind at this point, Zelda is simply walking around the dog park with her friend and wagging her tail and has done nothing to be labeled misbehaved by anyone’s standards. I will hence forth refer to this woman as “Rude Lady”. The dialogue continued as follows:
Me: “She is not fake, she is being trained…and she is very well behaved.”
My Friend: “Zelda is really well behaved!”
Rude Lady: “Okay well why do you need her??”
Me: “I’m sorry….are you asking me what my disability is or did you mean to ask what tasks she performs?” (at this point in an annoyed, corrective tone. I’m hardly going to shout across a public park what is “wrong” with me.)
Rude Lady: “Oh, right right. Yes, what does she do?” (still condescending, but clearly taken aback that I corrected her)
Me: “She performs Tactile Stimulation and is in training to perform Deep Pressure Therapy currently, and also Balance Assistance once large enough.”
Rude Lady: “Oh….well…okay, but I have worked with service dogs in the past and she doesn’t look like one.”
Me: “As someone who claims to have worked with service animals you have quite a disregard for how your inappropriate questioning here could effect me…..even possibly triggering an issue for which the service animal is here to help with. It’s pretty disappointing. Also….we are at a DOG PARK. Service animals come in all shapes and sizes— even giant breeds.”
Rude Lady: “Okay, just saying I couldn’t tell why you had her.” (with a smirk on her face.)
Me: “Again- Inappropriate. Have a great day— Im going to head to the other lot where people are less judgmental.”
I then let Zelda enjoy herself for another half hour at the other lot and reflected on my experience. On one hand it was terrible— genuinely triggering major anxiety. On the other hand I was able to first hand show my friend and everyone else at that park (since the woman screamed it) what it is like when you treat a service animal team so negatively….all while hopefully reminding this woman of her place. If she truly did previously work with service animals I am embarrassed that she is a member of our community with such little regard for others. So I suppose the lesson is….think before you speak!
Next week I will be in Florida with Zelda….wish me luck!
Make sure to follow Zelda on IG to keep up with her adventures: @zelda_clermont
To learn more about service animal laws in your state click here.
To learn the difference between Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs click here.
If you are interested in donating time, money, or resources to help someone receive a service animal reach out to local organizations in your community.
If you have questions about Zelda or how I work with her— I will do my best to answer openly.