Written by Kerry E.B. Black
June 4th, 2017
My daughter, Bear, has a service dog through Canine Companions for Independence. We waited three years while the organization vetted us as a qualified family and while the appropriate dog was trained. When the time came and a dog with the right potential personality and skills became available, we moved to Dublin, Ohio for intense training. To graduate as a service team, we needed to master the commands and show our ability to adapt them in ways to help when we reached home. My daughter, her dog Latte, and I form a three-point companion team. Although Bear and Latte are usually pretty good about remembering, I reinforce the commands and ensure they pay attention to the rules in public.
My girl has spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, autism, and a number of other diagnoses. Latte helps keep her safe and provides some independence. The dog recognizes and depresses handicapped access buttons to open doors and carries light objects. She puts my Bear’s laundry in the basket in the morning and retrieves her comfort items throughout the day. Latte will even drag Bear’s forearm crutch to her.
Latte accompanies us on outings. She remains calm, quiet, and attentive to Bear. At restaurants, she curls up under the table, and nobody knows she’s there. She attends movies and accompanies us at amusement parks and museums. Latte is a part of the family and Bear’s best friend. Since the dog came to live with us, Bear has slept through the nights. (Before Latte’s arrival, Bear woke about every two hours every single night.) Latte provides comfort and companionship for a young lady whom society often overlooks or disregards. She attracts attention at times, which allows this often-ignored young lady the chance to interact with others. Latte is a blessing to our family.
Canine Companions for Independence provided this amazing helper with the understanding we as a service team must follow the CCI rules, including regular medical check-ups, adhering to a code of conduct, and participating in reviews and assessments.
I admit one of my many shortcomings is I am not much of a fighter. However, for my children and for our service dog, I make stands. This letter serves as a warning growl, so to speak.
When you come across a service animal, ask permission before you touch. If you distract Latte while she is attending to my daughter, she might inadvertently pull my disabled child over. Do not pull on or try to take the leash. Part of the extensive CCI training involves ignoring distractions, but someone pulling on the leash is an uncalled-for invasion of personal space. Under no circumstances should you pull the dog’s head toward you, call her, or offer her food. In order to remain healthy enough for service, CCI dogs adhere to a strict, veterinarian-approved diet, so do not “slip the dog treats.” Her rewards are praise and pets. Do not undermine years of training.
Lest you think I’m “exaggerating,” I’ll provide a specific. We three attended a Nutcracker Ballet in December. While in line waiting to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, a man grabbed Latte’s leash and pulled her to visit his granddaughter. I caught Bear before she fell, retrieved the leash, and admonished the full-grown man. We would have allowed his granddaughter to pet Latte if he’d have asked. He did not. Instead, he endangered my daughter. Also, if Latte were not a trained professional, she might have snapped at someone manhandling her.
I’ve been told I am cruel because I adhere to the CCI rules. “Let the dog be a dog.” Well, she is, indeed a dog, but she is a service dog. Latte enjoys free time. She romps through the yard with her friends and plays with toys. She luxuriates on the bed and harasses the kitties. Bear adores her, and Latte holds a special place in my family. Knowing and following the rules is not cruel any more than insisting on good behavior from children.
See, I also require my children follow rules. They know to show respect for others and their property. They understand certain environments require particular behaviors. For instance, they must not run at church. It is unsafe and disrespectful. Quiet voices and good manners accompany formal dinners. Dress clothes mean no playing in puddles or rolling in the mud. No shoes on the furniture, and so on. Thus, my children learn to get along in society.
Latte’s learned society’s rules, too. You’ll never meet a quieter, sweeter personality in a pooch. If she forgets herself and, for instance, sniffs a passer-by while we’re perusing a gallery, we pull on her lead and remind her, “sniffing is not for when we’re in public.” This allows others at the museum the freedom to enjoy their outing without our interference.
Latte was bred in California for her amazing temperament. An incredible family fostered her. They followed CCI protocol and socialized Latte as a puppy. Over forty-thousand dollars went into her preparations. Latte came from a litter of twelve puppies. Only she and one sister made the cut to be service dogs. She’s truly an amazing animal.
The news reports a rise in “scam” support animals. People buy their untrained pooches bogus “service jackets” and present them thus adorned to the public. On online sites offer vests and “official registries” without requiring any credentials. Some even present papers stating their pet provides necessary benefits for their owner, even if the animal is not properly socialized. Untrained animals may beg and whine for attention. They might bark at or grow aggressive with other people or animals. Their owners may take them places inappropriate for pets and feed them from their plates. They indulge the pets’ whims and their own, but at what cost?
Owners of untrained support animals exploit people with a genuine need for service. They cheapen the training and dedication of genuine service animals.
We went to dinner a few months ago, a burger joint where you order the food and then acquire condiments at a station. Bear and Latte stood a bit apart while I topped her burger. Another “service dog” entered the building, spotted Latte, and barked. Latte is trained to show submission in such circumstances to diffuse the situation. I abandoned the burger and took the leash. As I led Bear and the dog to the table, the couple with the other dog lost control, and the dog lunged. We escaped without injury, but the situation frightened us. I’d bet anything that other dog was not a properly trained service dog. Service dogs are not aggressive.
When a hotel allows admittance to Latte, they know Latte remains quiet throughout the entire stay. We ask where she can relieve herself and clean up after. We conduct ourselves appropriately. At all times, we bear the responsibility of representing the service animal community and CCI.
Somehow, people grow jealous of a kid who has more challenges and pain than most. While at Walt Disney World, a woman glared at Bear and said, “I wish I could bring my dog with me.” We’ve heard such mutterings often. Some people complain. Instead of seeking hotels where pets are accepted for a fee, some of these people scam. They buy the vests and make false claims.
We’ve checked out of hotels where the staff complimented Latte. They explain they can tell “real” service dogs from “not real.” Scammers bark and carry on. They scratch at the doors and whine. They lose control and don’t use outside facilities to relieve themselves. Their owners act entitled instead of knowledgeable. Instead of answering the two federally-allowed questions (ie- Is this a service dog? And What is it trained to do for you?) they often become combative.
In Latte’s jacket, we carry literature about CCI. I explain the organization and what is involved with service animals to anyone interested. My daughter invites people to pet Latte after she is seated and everyone is safe. We love sharing our enthusiasm for our life-changing Latte and CCI.
Please read these excellent articles for more insight into this situation:
To read more of Kerry’s letters, click here.