Forced service dog testing is not the fix you might think

by Bradley W. Morris, MA, CPhil

The head of golden retriever lying on the ground is raised up to an overhead hand feeding the dog a treat. The hand belongs to a woman in a wheelchair, who is mostly off-camera.

For most service dog trainers and handlers, it’s definitely a good idea to do a training check with a public access test (PAT) and maintain training records. However, what is a good idea for you as an individual does not always translate into what’s a good idea for laws that impact the whole community.

Different organizations have different public access tests (PATs). PATs are evaluations based on each organization’s internal community standards, which come from different sets of experiences and imperfect knowledge. These standards are usually much more detailed than the basic good behavior required by law, but not so detailed that they can account for the countless exceptions and modifications required by the reasonable possibilities.

It’s understandable that there are different opinions in the community on which standards we should have and whether we all need to have exactly the same standards. One person might think a service dog needs to be a robot at a restaurant, able to remain motionless while a running, screaming child launches a plateful of French fries at the dog’s face. Another person might think that if the dog eats a fry but isn’t aggressive and still mitigates the person’s disability, there’s no reason to make the service dog leave.

A smiling woman with long brown hair and wearing a peacock-patterned dress holds a clipboard outside of a store while a small white and black dog sits on the ground at her side, looking up at her.Room for ongoing debate about community standards can be healthy in the evolution of the service dog world, given the variety of needs and unimagined ways a service dog could work. That is one reason why community standards and PATs can (and should) significantly differ from requirements that have the force of law.

What’s most important is that the team has ongoing acceptable behavior in the real world, not in a focused evaluation. There is a big difference between team behavior and a whole system to verify behavior. Most all of us can agree we want all service dog teams to have some kind of acceptable behavior. Not all of us are comfortable with a system that would assume you are “guilty” and should not be allowed in public until you are proved “innocent” by someone else’s reckoning.

Let’s imagine that, in some distant possible world, all the first-round problems of forcing PATs on people were solved: the PAT was paid for, the time off work was paid for, free transportation provided, services offered locally in even the most rural areas, testers were fully competent to evaluate dog body language and team behavior, testers had zero bias based on disability type or breed/size of dog, testers had zero inclination to generously pass teams in spite of red flags, the results reporting infrastructure was centralized but had the perfect amount of privacy protection, and so on.

Even with all of this fantasy in place, forced PATs would still not be as helpful as business employees simply being educated about and enforcing their current rights. In the fantasy world, employees would need to be educated about the whole PAT system—which seems challenging, too—but there would still be a big problem.

Employees cannot be expected to be service dog experts. If they are focused on ID or some documentation, they’re distracted from focusing on whether the dog is behaved. The average person unthinkingly sees service dog IDs as free passes, assuming the misbehaving ID team must be okay because of the ID.

Charlie is a black Border Collie mix with a white chest. Her right ear sticks out while her left ear flops down as she smiles for the camera at Cedar Point, America’s Roller Coast, a theme park in northern Ohio. On this pleasantly overcast day, people are walking behind Charlie as a blue and white roller coaster twists through the background. In the distance, through the trees, there is the blue and white Cedar Point water tower. 

Even if there were a close-to-fantasy PAT system, there would still be intentional fakers, the ignorant-but-well-meaning, teams that lose their training, and teams that were passed but shouldn’t have been. So the need for employees to focus on in-the-moment behavior never goes away and would remain top priority. If we do not lean on a certification system to do the work, there is less ID-related distraction and it is psychologically simpler for an employee to focus on behavior in the moment.

There’s another point that hits the psychiatric service dog community harder. Just like there are many opinions about the gray areas of acceptable behavior (both for service dogs and for humans!), there are many ways to get to acceptable behavior. I do not believe that someone who has a perfectly behaved service dog, but paralyzing test anxiety, should be denied the use of a service dog because their disability prevented them from passing a test.

A woman with a cane holds the leash of a Miniature Pinscher wearing a green bandana.With all this in mind, I encourage community members to be wary of any organization when it tries to force very detailed internal standards on everyone through external laws. A one-size-fits-all approach that is very specific about behavior is usually not in the interest of the disability community.

I definitely understand and feel the concern about dogs in public that are direct threats to health or safety, whether they’re service dogs or not. But when laws are already in place that would work well if there was education and enforcement, it’s rarely the case that more laws or harsher laws are the answer.