Here is my my recent HuffPost Blog.
If I want to start a heated conversation at work, all I need to do is mention the plethora of dogs wearing service vests on base. I’m employed at a military hospital, and my colleagues, both civilian and military, will immediately rail against these dogs. Their use is viewed as an overt plea for undeserved attention and as a means of malingering. Many of my co-workers served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’ve often experienced the horrors of war. Sometimes I don’t learn about their war experiences for years. They’re literally soldiering on, managing their post-war emotional issues with grace. Some of them receive mental health services. None, however, have service or emotional-support dogs. I was always sympathetic to their views, but I’ve been slow to fully appreciate their perspective.
When I started working at the hospital in 2007, I rarely saw service or emotional-support dogs. Now they’re everywhere on the seventy-five-acre base. Classifying your dog as a service or emotional-support animal is as easy as several clicks on a computer, along with paying a small fee for the vest the dogs must wear. Because the American with Disabilities Act prohibits questions regarding the nature of someone’s disability, the legitimacy of the dogs is rarely challenged.
I’ve been slow to understand my peers’ opinions about these dogs. I thought if someone was willing to seek comfort from an animal that required multiple daily walks, feedings, and poop scooping, maybe a real need existed. Whether for a veteran with a war wound or one with another serious ailment, the dogs lent comfort. Using a canine to meet needs represented healthier coping than using drugs or alcohol or engaging in other destructive behavior. If patients wanted others to assume something was wrong with them, maybe there was, manifested by the need to identify as disabled when they weren’t. So as long as the animals were well behaved, I didn’t see the harm in them. In addition, the benefits of a service dog didn’t include cash stipends, housing, or parking access. The owners only wanted Fido with them 24/7. Classifying a pet as a service / emotional-support dog seemed like an adaptive way to ease through a difficult world.
But because the dogs were a hot topic, I thought I should educate myself about them. I was alarmed to learn that my laissez-faire attitude was both naïve and misguided. I discovered that without documentation from a medical or mental health provider, placing a dog in a service vest is considered fraud. In addition, it’s a violation of federal law to misrepresent a pet as a service or emotional-support animal. People who do so are at risk of incurring criminal penalties. As a mental health provider, I will now advocate for educating patients on these laws and the concurrent legal risks.
I fully support the use of legitimate service and emotional-support animals. Puppies Behind Bars is an organization that trains services dogs. Tito, whom I spoke to recently, works at PBB’s Manhattan headquarters. He informed me that their dogs can follow “ninety-plus commands,” including assisting with laundry. In the past, when I’ve mentioned this particular skill to people outside the medical or mental health fields, they invariably joke that they wish their dogs could perform this chore. They don’t understand that if someone needs a service dog to do their laundry, they’re either missing limbs or their limbs don’t function properly because of illness or injury. However, everyone agrees that the dogs’ skills are impressive.
Several years ago, I worked with a patient who had severe post traumatic stress disorder caused by a horrific combat incident. In addition, during his hospitalization on the psychiatric ward he experienced a personal tragedy devastating enough to unglue anyone. I helped him obtain a service dog from Puppies Behind Bars, and I’m certain the commitment and responsibilities required to care for his animal, as well as the unconditional love of the dog, helped to keep him alive.
As a mental health provider, it’s important that I always check my biases and ensure I’m not acting out of personal experiences and feelings. My convictions must be grounded in facts, and I need to strive to be open to new perspectives. My belief that the multitude of dogs on base was harmless was incorrect. My colleagues were right—often dogs that appear to be service or emotional-support animals obtained certification through accessible but illegal means, and they didn’t deserve the rights and benefits allowed to legitimate service animals. In the future, I’ll continue to love all the dogs I encounter at work, but I’ll no longer assume the ones sporting vests deserve to wear them.