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Tuesday, June 19 News

The Home Team / Service dog? (Yeah, right!)

So there we were, my oldest son Matt and I, sitting out in front of Little Barn, eating our sandwiches, drinking our beverage. Relaxing. A guy who Matt apparently knows stops by and starts talking to us. He’s carrying in his arms a small dog wearing one of those “service” vests — so, of course, we ask the guy about it. “Oh, he’s not really a service dog,” the guy says. Wink-wink. “I just got him the vest so I could take him into coffee shops, bars, you know.” His tone is conspiratorial, with a dash of wise-ass mixed in — kind of like, “doesn’t everyone do this?

I wasn’t sure if this guy was a friend of Matt, or possibly a work colleague, so I bit my tongue and kept my mouth shut. But I could feel the mercury in my irritation-meter climbing. It just so happens that the service dog scam is one of my pet peeves. (Haha, no pun intended. But not a bad one . . .)

Maybe I was particularly annoyed because of what I’d seen just the night before. I’d gone to one of my favorite area bars to meet a friend for a quick drink. I’d left Kemba, my beloved dog, in the car, knowing I’d be away from him for only a half hour. (And yes, of course I’d cracked the windows.) In the bar’s outside space, I saw a group of Millennials with not one, not two, but three dogs— all gallivanting around, out of control, as if they owned the place. On my way out, I spotted the bar’s no-nonsense, long-time owner. Thinking of poor Kemba waiting for me in the car, I said to her, “I never realized you allowed dogs here.”

“We don’t,” she answered. Then, smirking, she added, “Those are service dogs.” She punctuated this with air quotes.

I really hate when people do this with their pets. I was in Starbucks on the Post Road a few months ago and saw a guy I’ve known for years, through coaching youth sports. He was sitting on an easy chair, his little frou-frou dog snug on his lap. Same deal as the guy in front of Little Barn. “Service dog.” Same smug grin from my old acquaintance.

Here’s what drives me nuts about the misuse of the service dog privilege: 1.) It’s gotten to the point where if we see a “service dog” (and I’m using the term interchangeably with “therapy” and “emotional support” dogs), and the owner doesn’t appear to be obviously disabled, we automatically assume it’s a scam; 2.) People who do this are cynically and selfishly taking advantage of a policy that was intended for people who have a real problem; 3.) Hence, we begin to look askance at anyone accompanied by a service dog, even if it happens that the need and the service are legit — which is really unfair to and unfortunate for the truly disabled individual. Finally — and I don’t know how much sense this will make to you — it really bothers me that the service dog abusers are making their innocent, unsuspecting pet an accomplice to their crime.

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Earlier this year (Jan. 22), The New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Delta Tightens Rules for Service and Support Pets,” accompanied by this pull-quote: “A policy to help passengers with special needs has been increasingly abused.” I’ll say! The report goes on to state that “many passengers have tried to evade the high cost and hassle of traveling with their pets by giving them a service or support designation.” And then Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group that supports disabled travelers and tourists, is quoted: “People have abused the privilege and ruined the image of service animals. And now they’re creating a whole lot more hassle for disabled people to travel, penalizing them for needing a service animal, putting another roadblock in front of them.”

All so that dudes like the one in front of Little Barn can take their dogs into coffee shops and bars.

I realize it’s entirely possible that I have friends, or maybe readers of this column, who, unbeknownst to me, resort to this kind of trickery. And if I’ve offended you . . . too bad.

Hey, I’ve been afraid I’d miss my dog, too, when I’ve traveled to California. Which is part of the reason I’ve driven across the country and back with my dog — five times.

No scamming for this dog guy.

“The Home Team” appears the first Friday of every month. You can also keep up with Hank’s adventures on his blog, “Beagle Man,” on the Westport News website, at: http://blog.ctnews.com/

beagleman/ To reach Hank, e-mail him at DoubleH50@gmail.com.

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