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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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The Year of the (Service) Dog

Most of us who have paid attention to the placemats on the table in a Chinese restaurant will recall that the Chinese calendar is linked to certain zodiac signs which are represented by animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The year 2009 is the year of the Ox, and the year 2010 is the year of the Tiger. The year of the Dog will not come until 2018.

But all of that is based on Chinese astrology, which has a long and rich history.

I started this blog post with a brief description of the Chinese zodiac signs because I feel it is a good segue to my topic: the year 2009 was the Year of the (Service) Dog.

I suspect that there was probably more discussion, more debate, and more litigation about service dogs and service animals in 2009 than in past years. There are several reasons for this.

One reason is because our traditional notions of service animals are changing. Traditionally, we thought of service animals that assist the blind (“seeing-eye dogs”), the deaf or hearing impaired (“alert dogs”), and the physically disabled (“mobility service dogs”). Utilizing effective training methods, animal trainers can now train animals to assist children who are deathly allergic to peanuts, children with autism, and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are service dogs that detect low blood sugar in people with diabetes. There are also service snakes, service ferrets, and service dogs that detect oncoming seizures in people who have epilepsy. Many of these service animals have been profiled in the newspapers across the country. I have talked about these service animals in previous blog posts, including Service Animals and the Law and especially in Should We Rethink the Concept of Service Animals?

Caption: A seeing eye miniature horse guides a visually impaired person in a store. Courtesy of Guide Horse Foundation.

A second reason has to do with the types of animals that are being used to mitigate the disability. We typically think of dogs as the creatures of choice to assist the physically disabled. But not all dogs may be able to perform certain tasks as well as other animals. This past year, there have been several news articles about various animals that are used as service animals, including miniature horses, monkeys, parrots, pigs, snakes, lizards, ferrets, and rats. I discussed the use of these creatures as service animals in a previous blog post, “Should We Rethink the Concept of Service Animals?” which included a discussion of two lengthy articles on the use of exotic creatures as service animals, Rebecca Skloot’s “Creature Comforts” and Joe Eskenazi’s “Service With a Snarl.” Other bloggers have also shared their reaction to use of exotic animals as service animals (see, e.g., Definition of ‘Service Animal’ Hotly Debated: Monkeys, Horses, Birds – Oh my!Helper Parrots & Guide Dogs: Where to Draw the Line?Man’s Use of Snake As A Service AnimalEverybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Service Monkey).

A third reason has to do with certain people who pawn their companion pets as service animals. I discussed the social problem of “fake service animals” in Badly Behaved ‘Service Animals’ and When Companion Pets Become Service Animals. By exposing people who are taking advantage of the system, the media is shedding light on the problems businesses and individuals with disabilities face when service animals visit places of public accommodations. Some businesses do not understand what they can and cannot do under the law. Individuals with disabilities who depend on their service animals face increasing scrutiny. And people who pretend to have disabilities and pretend that their pets are service animals cause multiple problems for both businesses and the people who depend on their service animals.

A fourth reason has to do with the fact that parents who have children with disabilities are becoming more knowledgeable about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Parents who learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act subsequently encourage their disabled child to take their service animal to school. Sometimes, the school will react negatively to the idea of a service animal brought to school. When this happens, the parents will often sue on behalf of their child; and when this happens, the press and bloggers will report the ongoing litigation between the parents and the school. Two closely watched cases this year involved Carter’s dog Corbin and Kaleb’s dog Chewey. I discussed potential arguments why schools don’t want service animals in schools in Service Animals in the Schools. I also discussed whether IEPs are required in order to for students to be accompanied by their service animals in Are IEPs Necessary for Service Animals?

A fifth reason has to do with new and proposed legislation permitting children to bring their service animal to school. Although a school may be a place of public accommodation as that term is used in the Americans with Disabilities Act, some state legislators want to enact laws that explicitly provide that children with disabilities may bring their service animals to school. By enacting such laws, the state seeks to eliminate the need for either the parents or the schools to litigate the matter, which saves time and money. The Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, recently signed a bill that explicitly require schools to permit children with disabilities to bring their service animals. New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney has recently proposed similar legislation.

What does the New Year have in store for us? Undoubtedly, more discussion, more debates, and possibly more litigation across the country regarding service animals. There will be more discussion about how to distinguish between service animals and companion pets. There will be more debates regarding whether exotic creatures can be trained to be service animals and whether dogs can “smell” an oncoming seizure or be trained to help autistic children from harming themselves. There will be more talk about whether service animals should be certified. We will likely see more service animals in the schools, on the streets, and in other places where the public is invited. This issue is not going away.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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    Beth Finke

    Thanks for yet another informative post. I may use some of this info (and link to your post, of course!) on the autism blog I moderate for Easter Seals: http://autismblog.easterseals.com
    Happy New Year!