It seems nothing launches the nature-vs.-nurture debate like whether pit bulls are suitable to work as service dogs. Back in the 1980s, the city of Yakima joined many local jurisdictions in banning the breed entirely within city limits, amid yelps from human pit bull defenders that the action singled out the dogs and ignored irresponsible owners and breeders.
The issue has simmered for a quarter-century; then in April, the Yakima City Council approved an exemption that allows pit bulls as service animals. The change came on the advice of city attorneys, who said the all-out ban violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The exemption requires animals to be registered with the city, be restrained on leashes and muzzled in public, and the dogs must be kept in pens or locked enclosures when at home.
Pit bull supporters cheered, but opponents feared the exemption created an opening for dog owners who view intimidation by canines as a “service.” And indeed, an incident wasn’t long in coming.
Two weeks after the council action, the official accounts say, a registered pit bull service dog ran out the front door of a home, attacked a dog a block away and bit three people who tried to break up the fight. The city registration form had indicated the dog offered calm and emotional support to its disabled owner, channeled away negative emotions and provided a sense of security — the exact opposite of what the animal offered to its canine and human neighbors.
City officials say the owner misled them when he filled out paperwork that stated the dog was a service animal. The dog, which had no training, was being used as a therapy dog and not a service dog, which requires extensive training. The dog also wasn’t restrained as called for in the city ordinance. On top of that, the owner claims an animal control officer told him to register the dog as a service animal to get around the pit bull ban, an assertion the city vigorously denies.
All those problems may fall on the owner, but there are plenty of issues with the federal law, too. The ADA requires that service dogs be admitted to schools, restaurants, stores, public transportation, hotels and apartments. Landlords and businesses cannot ask to see certification for the dogs, and the city can ask only if the dog has been trained as a service animal and what kind of service it performs. The city cannot demand documentation showing the dog’s training or proof that the person registering a service animal is indeed disabled.
All that needs to change.
True service dogs go through extensive training and provide a valuable service to those who need it. The open-ended nature of the current law, which allows untrained “service” animals, is unfair to the legitimately trained dogs and the people who depend on them.
Under current law, business owners can tell a service-dog owner to leave if the dog is misbehaving, and increasing awareness of that provision could help. But a more comprehensive and direct solution would be to designate a group like the American Kennel Club to determine standards for service dogs and administer tests before a dog could be certified. That would provide certainty for dog owners, landlords, businesses and municipalities. This would also clear the way for legitimately trained pit bulls to perform their jobs, which works around the blanket breed ban.
This approach won’t resolve the nature vs. nurture debate, but at least it would provide a reasonable resolution of an emotional topic.