GDUI Announcement, May 5, 2016

Following the Dots Which Circumvent the Reality of the Worsening Problem of Fake Service Dogs Can Lead to Disaster for Guide Dog Users

Penny Reeder

President, Guide Dog Users, Inc.

I am writing to respond to the article, written by the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU), found here: https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm16/bm1605/bm160508.htm, in which Mr. Gwizdala implies that the increasing presence of untrained pet dogs masquerading as legitimately well trained service dogs is not an actual problem. My response is that the increasing presence of ill-behaved, uncontrolled service dog imposters is, in fact, a real problem which requires solutions – as the presence of untrained, ill-behaved, uncontrolled dogs in the environments where we guide dog users bring our  legitimate service animals can jeopardize our safety and that of our dogs, can negatively affect public attitudes concerning our civil rights to travel accompanied by and guided by our dogs anywhere people without disabilities travel, and can impede the right of business owners to maintain the kind of welcoming, safe, and clean environments that invite customers to enter their establishments and do business with them, and therefore can discourage merchants from admitting dogs – any dogs! – into their offices and retail establishments.

I do not understand why the negative consequences of an increasing number of ill-behaved service dog imposters encroaching into environments which, until recent years, were usually safe and welcoming  for service and guide dog users does not seem problematic to Mr. Gwizdala. I could not disagree more  with his officious characterization of the problems which people who bring service dog imposters into public venues  pose for service and guide dog users as “evil marketing.”

Even if Mr. Gwizdala has never experienced an out-of-control dog jumping — snarling, growling, and biting – on his own guide dog, surely he must have heard about such dangerous and frightening incidents from members of the organization over which he presides. Does he not consider attacks on guide dogs by other dogs problematic? After all, an attack like this can seriously injure a guide dog, as well as his or her blind or visually impaired partner –or even cause a guide dog’s career to end prematurely. Certainly all of us who rely on our guide dogs for safety and independence support the enforcement of laws in our communities which require citizens to leash their pets while they are out and about and to keep them under control inside their homes and yards – so that we can travel with our guide dogs, without anxiety, throughout our communities independently and safely. Why, then, would we not consider it a serious and potentially dangerous problem for a person to fake a disability in order to bring an untrained  pet wherever we have a right, guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, to bring our own well-trained and well-controlled guide dogs—especially if that pet turns out to be badly behaved, or uncontrollable, and the pet poses a threat to our safety and well-being?

Does Mr. Gwizdala actually think incidents like this and their increasing prevalence  in virtually every public venue where we travel with our guides are issues of minor import?

It is ludicrous for Mr. Gwizdala to claim that most service dog users who have experienced attacks from service dog imposters are graduates of one particular service dog training program, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). As president of Guide Dog Users, Inc. (GDUI), I have heard from members who are graduates of virtually every guide dog training program in the USA who have described frightening encounters with out-of-control service dog imposters. Some of these people reported serious injuries to their dogs and/or to themselves; some told our GDUI empathizers and our Advocacy Committee how their guides had to retire from service because of the negative effects from those attacks; all of them told us how the attacks undermined their sense of well-being and their confidence in their ability to travel safely with their guide dogs.

I will not even venture to comment on the inexcusable bias which Mr. Gwizdala’s contention that most fake service dog attacks are experienced only by CCI graduates represents –- except to say that his contention is not backed up by anything stronger than his own unfounded bias, and his implication that CCI launched their online petition only to acquire contact information for potential supporters, students or donors is reprehensible. Furthermore, his contention that CCI characterizes the increasing prevalence of fake service dogs as a serious problem only to somehow legitimize the accreditation program of Assistance Dogs International(ADI)  – which CCI has been awarded – is simply farfetched.

I don’t know why Mr. Gwizdala chose this particular moment in time to single out the 2013 CCI online petition, which asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to prohibit the sale of service dog equipment and fake identification paraphernalia online, to disparage CCI’s motives, and to call into question the legitimacy of their request of the U. S. Department of Justice, since it is common understanding that the DOJ already responded to the school and to the signers of the survey by rejecting the petitioners’ request –expressing an opinion that not even the U. S. Department of Justice can interfere with freedom of speech guaranteed within the marketplace by our laws. In other words, the DOJ apparently agrees with Mr. Gwizdala’s opinion that  purveyors of service dog paraphernalia, including identification cards and vests that do not represent any valid kind of certification,   have every right to sell their products online to whoever forks over the cash, whether or not the buyer is a service dog owner or simply a pet lover who wants to bring his or her dog anywhere he or she wants. Ahhh, the freedom of speech inside the marketplace – who can deny its legitimacy? Not the DOJ! Not CCI. The online petition is neither a solution – or even a valid approach! So, why bring  it up now, or at all?

GDUI knows, often because of our members’ first-hand accounts, that the increasing prevalence of service dog imposters virtually everywhere we attempt to travel with our guide dogs is a serious problem. Furthermore, we believe that the problem needs to be addressed and solved!

Certainly, many of us have owned or known sweet-natured pet dogs that we might have wished to bring with us to an al fresco dining venue, to romp on a public beach, or to any number of other locations where we traveled. Pets, however, are generally unaccustomed to venues that are far removed from their predictable home environments. Not all dogs welcome the presence of unknown dogs in their immediate vicinity. And, when a pet is brought into an environment with additional stressors – like a hustling, bustling, anxiety-filled airport, for example – the pet can easily lose all of his or her good manners, and lacking the training and discipline that we expect of our guide and service dogs, can pose a dangerous threat to our well-trained, bred-for-good-temperament, controlled by us guide and service animals.

Around the same time the U. S. Department of Justice rejected the CCI petitioners’ request, we released our GDUI Statement of Policy concerning misrepresentation of pets as service dogs and of pet-owners as people with disabilities http://guidedogusersinc.org/resources/advocacy-resources/. Since then GDUI affiliates and at-large members have been sharing our policy statement — which explains  our rights under the ADA to travel independently with our guide dogs anywhere people without disabilities can travel, and details the questions that business owners can ask to determine whether or not a dog which accompanies a customer into a business venue is, in fact, a service dog — with Chambers of Commerce and business owners across the country. We understand that part of the solution to the real and worsening problem of fake service dogs involves effective public education.

Over the past several years, GDUI’s Advocacy and Legislative Committee  has also assisted several GDUI affiliates by collaborating in the preparation of testimony which they have submitted with respect to proposed legislation which seeks to address the problem of uncontrolled pets masquerading as legitimate service animals. Like NAGDU, GDUI has assisted our members to explain our opposition to provisions in some of these proposed bills which would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring annual certification of guide and service dogs, or the wearing of specific garments or paraphernalia to identify dogs as legitimate service animals, or endless and burdensome presentation of identification cards or badges as a prerequisite for entry into public venues. Believing that an epidemic of out-of-control fake service animals is a legitimate and serious problem, and knowing that, when pet owners are made aware that masquerading their pets as service animals and themselves as people with disabilities can have serious consequences in the form of fines or other mandated penalties, the incidence of bringing imposter service dogs into public venues decreases, we are in sympathy with state legislators who want to solve the problem legislatively, and we do not consider our assistance or involvement in the state legislative arena a burden. As an organization whose mission is to support, advocate for, and represent guide dog users, we consider our involvement in legislative efforts to solve a problem that is a serious issue for us, our responsibility. I know that the president of our GDUI affiliate in Arizona (GDUAZ), Liz Whitlock is passionate about educating Arizona legislators who are attempting to address the issue of fake service dogs, and we have been pleased to assist her and the members of GDUAZ in deleting undesirable “remedies” from the proposed legislation while supporting that state’s desire to tackle and solve a worsening problem.

Mr. Gwizdala’s insistence on characterizing the increasing presence of untrained, often terrified, frequently uncontrolled and ill-behaved pets as service dogs as a “nonproblem,” and the attention the issue has received from media, legislators, and organizations like GDUI who understand the gravity of the worsening situation and want to find solutions which do not violate the civil rights which guide and service dog users are guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act as “propaganda” actually jeopardizes the safety of all of us who bring our guides into the public. His mischaracterization of a problem as propaganda will ultimately make it harder for all of us to bring our dogs into the public arena – as fewer and fewer business owners will greet us at their front doors with anything other than a high degree of skepticism and, if we’re lucky, grudging  acceptance. His mischaracterization of a problem as mere propaganda dishonors those guide dogs who have been injured, killed, or whose careers have been shortened because of their unfortunate encounters with out-of-control dogs whose owners were masquerading them as service animals. For the sake of acquiring a nylon harness or a leash that will easily carry him and his team through airport security, will he deny the existence of a worsening problem and will his organization fail to even seek solutions that might dissuade pet owners from engaging in a practice with real, problematic, and potentially dangerous consequences for all guide dog users? I hope not!