Animals–Trained to Serve?

In my dozen years as an activist in regard to the government provision of services for citizens, I have acted to improve services for tens of thousands of people; only once have I found the citizen to be wrong.

People have problems, they search the Internet and find some blog I’ve written (or twenty-eleven blogs, in the case of Wayne Freeman and Medicaid transportation) and they get in touch with me.  In this case, it was a woman somewhere in the North Country who couldn’t get paratransit drivers to put her service dog on the bus with her in a wheelchair.  Well, this seemed to me to be a pretty outrageous failure of the system but I keep an open mind about these things, so I took the case and started making phone calls.

I called people who knew stuff about the regulations for paratransit, i.e., public buses that provide service for people with disabilities that parallels the service of people who are able-bodied.  I called people who were officially involved with service animals and knowledgeable about them, and I called people who were officially involved with and knowledgeable about the citizen.

What I learned about paratransit and service animals is that you only can have your service animal on the lift with your wheelchair if the animal is working.  Okay?  If the animal is providing a service to you while you are on the lift then the animal can ride the lift with you, otherwise not.

For example, guide dogs may do more than see for the visually handicapped person.  One day I commented to a blind person that her German Shepard service animal was the largest one I’d ever seen.  She was a rather large person herself and she explained that in addition to her blindness she also had a balance problem.  The dog had been trained to sense when she was starting to lose her balance and to pull back against the angle of incline; the dog would pull her upright if she started to drift.   How about that?  Is that cool or what? 

I also saw a television show about a guy who was paralyzed from the chest down and had a service spider monkey.  No kidding—this monkey was trained to blow the guy’s nose, get him a beer from the refrigerator and pop its top, and change the discs on his CD player.  I also knew a guy who trained his dog to open the refrigerator and bring him a can of beer but that had nothing to do with disability, just your average guy who didn’t want to miss any of the game he was watching on television.  There are also service dogs who can tell when a person with epilepsy is about to have a seizure and they take appropriate action, mainly pushing the person to sit down (even in public) and guarding them until the seizure has passed.

From Pet Partners (

“The only way that a dog can be recognized as a true ‘service animal’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is when the following conditions are met:

  • “The owner or handler has a documented disability as defined under the ADA, ‘. . . a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.’
  • “The dog (or miniature horse) must be trained to perform a task or tasks that alleviate that disability. The mere presence of the animal (for example, ‘s/he gives me a reason to get up every morning’) does not qualify a dog as a service animal.
  • “The dog (or miniature horse) must not alter the environment for others. This means that s/he must be kept on a leash and under the control of the handler at all times in public, must not show signs of aggression, must be kept quiet and clean.”

This brings us to training.  Most service animals are professionally trained and that costs a very big bundle of money, however, you can self-train your own service animal.  There is no federal requirement that service animals have to be certified or identified, e.g., your self-trained service dog doesn’t have to wear a vest.  People who have self-trained animals frequently tell stories of discrimination heaped upon them because their animals are not professionally trained, and sometimes they deserve it.

I used to be on a committee that included a man in a manual wheelchair who had trained two German shepherds to pull his chair.  This is a perfectly legitimate activity—consider, for example, the multiply disabled person who uses a wheelchair and is blind.  Nobody is going to put up the money for her to get a power wheelchair.  You want a person driving blind who can go faster than you on your bicycle?

Anyway, this guy with his “self-trained” dogs came to the meeting one day and one dog got under the table and stuck his nose in my crotch.  After that his dogs were banned as inadequately trained.  (“If a dog does not meet all the requirements listed above, but a person represents their dog as a service animal, they are in violation of a federal law and subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.”)

And that was the problem with the woman in the North Country:  her dog was not adequately trained to ride the bus.  The dog was afraid of the bus and would cry and shake when confronted by it.  The woman first tried to get the drivers to pick up the dog and carry it on the bus.  When they refused, she tried to carry the poor frightened critter on the lift.  Not going to happen.

The appropriate solution is to have standardized testing for service animals in the same way that we have standardized testing for driver’s licenses.  It doesn’t matter whether you learn to drive from a certified driver’s education teacher, your mother, or your best friend’s cousin.  What matters is whether you can pass the licensing examination.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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