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Kirby: Is that service dog real? Check its ID

By Robert Kirby

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Sep 10 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:34 pm

I stepped on an animal at the Salt Palace Convention Center last week. Turning away from a drinking fountain, I stumbled over something small and hairy on a leash. It let out a yip.

When I expressed surprise, the less well-bred end of the line also got yippy. Why didn’t I watch where I was going? The animal had every right to be there.

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Him: "If you must know, it’s a service dog."

Me: "My mistake. I’ll have a Diet Coke."

It wasn’t that kind of service animal. According to the guy leading it around, it was an expensive "make-kids-feel-better" service dog, an animal specially trained to soothe hospitalized children by allowing itself to be held and petted.

Specially trained? Don’t dogs come by that behavior naturally? Couldn’t you just give the kid a bag of candy and not have to bother with all the hair? More importantly, when did a squirrel in a valet vest qualify as a service dog?

The guy didn’t appreciate the questions. Calling me an "animal hater," he picked up his service dog and the two of them went off to find a kid to soothe.

I’m not saying anything bad about real service dogs. I’ve seen them around. I sat next to one on TRAX last month. Until recently these have been dogs of normal size and appearance. Shepherds and Labradors in the main, but also other competent breeds such as huskies, hounds, collies and ponies.

Today, not only do service dogs come in different sizes and varieties, there are also more of them. And they specialize.

There are cancer-smelling dogs, seizure-detecting dogs, mutts that can dial 911, dogs that pull people in wheelchairs, beer-fetching dogs, dental technician dogs and service dogs that don’t do anything at all.

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When I was a kid, there were only four types of service dogs: St. Bernards, Seeing Eye dogs, police K-9s and bloodhounds.

St. Bernards rescued stranded hikers in the Alps by lugging brandy to them in kegs attached to their necks. I have no idea what the alcohol was for other than perhaps to make dying of exposure more tolerable.

Seeing Eye dogs led sight-impaired people safely around life-threatening obstacles. It was said these dogs could even recognize when the lights changed in a crosswalk.

Police dogs back then didn’t multitask like cop mutts of today. They were basically limited to ripping the %*@# off anyone who acted aggressively within a designated bite radius (half a square mile).

Finally, there were bloodhounds, dogs that tracked escaped slaves, convicts, raccoons and, rumor had it, truant schoolchildren.

Here’s the aggravating part. Today just about any dog can be a service dog. If your dog can pass a pee test for rabies and isn’t actually a cat, you can get it certified to take it anywhere regardless of how everyone else feels about it.

Note: The qualifications to become a federally certified "emotional support dog" (essentially a pet with an ID card) are even lower (none).

Various websites will sell you a kit that identifies your dog as an important "service" or "emotional support" dog whether or not it can actually do anything of measurable value. You’ll be free to take it onto an airplane, into a judge’s chambers, or next to you during surgery.

For around a hundred bucks, the kit includes an embroidered "Service Dog on Duty" vest, a photo ID card, a collar tag and a concealed weapon permit. It’s all very official.

It’s also nonsense. Next time you fly somewhere, you could end up sitting next to somebody’s emotional support pit bull. Don’t worry. It will have an ID card.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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