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A Service Dog Who Bites?
Poor training is not fair to the dog.
Beth Finke doesn't worry about her Seeing Eye dog, Hanni, biting strangers.

A story in the San Francisco Weekly ("Service with A Snarl") describes Tita, a Chihuahua service dog who helps a man named Charles Esler deal with bipolar disorder. A happy, feel-good story, except for one thing: Tita bites. Tita regularly chases and lunges after people in public parks. She snarled and barked at a guard at the Social Security Administration. She bit Esler’s primary care provider. And during SF Weekly’s interview with Esler? She bit the reporter.


"'She’s vicious,' Esler says with a smile, cradling the dog, which licks his face with abandon. 'If you were to approach a guide dog without acknowledging yourself, I’m sure a guide dog would bark, too.'"


Actually, no. In her recent article for Bark, "The Making of a Guide Dog," Jane Brackman explains that  puppies who can’t learn appropriate ways to deal with stress do not get placed as guide dogs.

“All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.”

Poor Tita! Training proper behavior is as much for the dog’s comfort as for the human who will eventually work with that dog. It seems inhumane to expect an untrained dog to feel relaxed and confident in public situations such as large crowds, public transportation, and all the normal places we humans don’t think twice about. Seeing Eye puppies are gradually introduced to all kinds of these things and carefully socialized from birth. This way, when they finally go out with a blind person, it’s no big deal to hop on a train, take a bus, be in a stadium full of screaming fans, or be around other dogs and new people. They’ve done it all and seen it all by then. Nothing bothers them. And if it does, they are rejected from the program and placed where they belong: in a companion home.

Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog. bethfinke.wordpress.com

Photo by Kaitlin Cashman.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by MPK | June 23 2009 |

I'm not disabled, but have seen first-hand the enormous difference a guide dog can make in a person's life. I don't doubt that other types of assistance dogs do the same for their companions, every day.

But I think it's worth bearing in mind the term "reasonable accommodation." Apart from the legal meaning of that term, on a basic social level, it's important that reasonable accommodation cuts both ways. Lots of people are terrified of dogs, are allergic, or simply don't care for them. We ask them to put their fears and feelings aside so that people who need assistance dogs can lead fuller lives. It seems only fair to expect that the dogs will be trained to behave in way that is respectful of other people.

Submitted by Tamandra Michaels | June 23 2009 |

As a person with a disability who has an 'owner trained' Service dog, I'm appalled. Can you imagine if it were a dog like mine who behaved like this--a German Shepherd who weighs 90 lbs ?? Sounds like the owner thinks it's cute that the dog is vicious. Sorry, but it's not cute. It's hurting all of us who have our dogs working with us in public. More and more, I'm experiencing access difficulties, and I'm betting a large part of that is because of the abuse of people taking dogs that have no business being in public around with them.

I absolutely agree that it's crucial a dog be comfortable in public. My guy, who's now 8 years old, was remarkably confident and comfortable in public from 8 *weeks* old. Nothing bothered him, though I still took him to as many experiences as I could. I've had people scream at me, and he doesn't bark at them, let alone behave in any aggressive manner.

Business owners need to know that any Service dog, regardless of certification, can be denied access if they behave in a way that's disruptive, or a danger to others. This dog should not be allowed anywhere in public.

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | June 24 2009 |

This is just appalling! What an insult to skilled, well tempered service dogs and the people dedicated to training them.

As a professional dog trainer and Canine Good Citizen instructor, I am often surprised to see people reward their dog for inappropriate behavior that they deem "cute." What's worse is when dog-training professionals don't point out said behavior. Don't they have a responsibility to teach the owner how to help their dog be a good citizen?

Just last night, I took my own dog to a class where a small dog growled and lunged at a larger dog's face. The small dog owner's response was to give her dog a treat! She then put her dog in the instructor's lap and while the dog licked the instructor's face, she cooed at him. You can be sure that I would not allow such inappropriate behavior on the part of the dog (or the owner!) in my own classes.

If you haven't taken a Canine Good Citizen class with your own dog, it's a goal well worth pursuing.

Submitted by MaryEllen Schneider | June 25 2009 |

Thanks for your well tempered response, Beth, and for pointing out that Tita is a victim here as well. Poor Tita, indeed, being continually put in situations that frighten her enough to bite.

If people can't use common sense in choosing and utilizing service animals, the law needs to step-in. The story about the biting mastiff was appalling. The owner shows blatant disregard for the safety of others. Why in the world wasn't that dog removed from her care?

Submitted by Marie | June 26 2009 |

Tamandra makes a good point -- business owners *do* have some options. Here’s a quote from the “Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business” on the US government’s ADA site

Q: What if a service animal barks or growls at other people, or otherwise acts out of control?
Block quote start

A: You may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from your facility when that animal's behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety
of others. For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other guests or customers may be excluded. You may not make assumptions,
however, about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on your past experience with other animals. Each situation must be considered individually.

Although a public accommodation may exclude any service animal that is out of control, it should give the individual with a disability who uses the service
animal the option of continuing to enjoy its goods and services without having the service animal on the premises.
Block quote end

Q: Can I exclude an animal that doesn't really seem dangerous but is disruptive to my business?
Block quote start

A: There may be a few circumstances when a public accommodation is not required to accommodate a service animal--that is, when doing so would result in
a fundamental alteration to the nature of the business. Generally, this is not likely to occur in restaurants, hotels, retail stores, theaters, concert
halls, and sports facilities. But when it does, for example, when a dog barks during a movie, the animal can be excluded.

Block quote end

If you have further questions about service animals or other requirements of the ADA, you may call the U.S. Department of Justice's toll-free ADA Information
Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TDD).

Submitted by Kimberly | June 17 2013 |

Does this also apply to landlord/tenant issues? There is an emotional support dog (PTSD) living in our complex. He is an 80 lb German Shepard. However, he has lunged at multiple children and small dogs. More importantly he isn't being walked by the person he is supposed to be assisting. He is being walked by a small child. When the owner was confronted by other resident he indicated that dog was just a year old and "still had a lot of puppy in him, but he would never bite anyone." I LOVE dogs and grew up with a large German Shepard, but I am concerned for my own dog and the children in the complex.

Submitted by Kathy Konetzka-Close | June 26 2009 |

I have a friend who has trained her two Dobermans, and I think her Labrador as well, to assist her as service dogs and I know it has made a huge difference in her quality of life. And it's great that if one dog is being overworked, she can draw on another to assist where she needs it. I don't know if they all learn the same behaviors or not, but I do know that she's working with an organization that will certify her dogs and I guess that's really my question/response to this story--was Tita a "real" service dog or is that just what her owner calls her? I mean, honestly, there's not a service organization in the country who would certify an aggressive dog. What's unfortunate is that Tita's behavior kind of gives every service dog a black eye, because she would certainly leave a bad memory with anyone in the general public who doesn't know about the hours of training that goes into every service dog. Certainly, Tita's not a happy girl, either, because that kind of stress and insecurity affects her entire life experience. Just a sad story, all the way around.

Submitted by erin | July 2 2009 |

Is Tita considered a real therapy dog or is this just a clever title instilled upon Tita by her owner? This needs to be the first questions answered. I have personally dealt closely with family member who have been diagnosed with bipolar and am intimately familiar with details of bipolar. I do not know of how a dog could act as a service/therapy dog to someone with bipolar, especially a dog with such disturbing behavior.

I'm surprised to hear that a dog who lunges and bites people is considered a therapy/service dog. From the articles I have read in The Bark, I was under the understanding that dogs that display this type of behavior are not placed as therapy dogs. Furthermore, isn't there some type of repercussions for Tita's behavior? (such as required training or behavioral sessions).

Submitted by Shaelyn | August 25 2009 |

I have BiPolar 2 and have a service dog because of it. One of her many jobs is to alert me when I start to display hypo-manic behaviour, something that I can have a difficult time doing when I am in the hypo-mindset. When I am in a depressed state she is trained to come and lend "support", where she gets herself as close to me as possible and licks at my face until I acknowledge her with my petting her. When a person with BP2 crashes, even when on medication; we crash hard. Statistically more suicides and attempts are done by those with BP2 than the other mental health issues, so being able to get a person out of that all consuming mindset is a huge blessing to those who experience it.

As far as training for service dogs, there are no demands or expectations placed on who does the training, how it is done, or what is taught. This is because it would put an undue financial stress on those who need a service animal, but who can not afford one. I trained my Manda, she could pick up on my being in trouble on her own, but certain commands and of course public access were all things that she and I had to work together on. I can see pros and cons of allowing this (I live in Illinois), if you are physically and mentally capable of training your dog, it will make your bond that muc stronger. Manda was a very loving dog before, but once we really got into training and especially now that she is with me all the time her devotion is amazing. Sometimes it feels like she can read my mind.

That being said, I would never have gone forward with training her if I thought that she would ever try to bite someone. Manda is part Am Staff (Pit Bull) and Italian Mastiff, so people are very much expecting her to be vicious and wild, and she is the exact opposite. She knows the difference between someone approaching us and someone who means to hurt me and she will protect me if needed. She is also trained to go into protect mode, if I say a certain word...that way if I am feeling threatened I can have her interceed until we can get out of the situation. She will not attack anyone with that command, but she will put on one hell of a show so I can get away.

Submitted by charles esler | January 7 2011 |

Thanks for your comments regarding service with a snarl

Submitted by Anonymous | July 8 2009 |

There is obviously a flaw in this current system of what constitutes a dog as a service dog, or a therapy dog for that matter. This is an issue that needs to be taken up with psychologists who themselves are trained to evaluate service animals rather than just issue the animals as service animals because they benefit the patient. I think we all agree that animals can be wonderful companions of service and that there are certainly valid cases to have a service animal-- but the animal his or herself should be at very least temperament tested. Better yet, why are they not required to earn their CGC certification at the least, or be certified to also be a therapy animal at best?

As from wikipedia:
Therapy dogs are not service or assistance dogs. Service dogs directly assist humans, and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. In the United States, service dogs are legally protected at the federal level by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Therapy dogs do not provide direct assistance and are not mentioned in the Americans with Disabilities Act.[1] Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access by therapy dogs. If allowed, many institutions have rigorous requirements for therapy dogs.

This is in the hands of psychologists and the people who write laws, and they should get on that so nasty dogs/irresponsible owners don't ruin it for everyone else!

Submitted by Helen | August 15 2009 |

Great article. Many puppies in assistance dog programs are well-socialized and in training from a very young age. Then they are evaluated on a number of levels in order to progress through Advanced Training to become service dogs for individuals with disabilities.

Two sites that describe puppies' earliest involvement in neuro stimulation, socialization, and training:


Even with early socialization, good breeding, and training, there are no guarantees that a puppy will possess the necessary temperament, health requirements, and skills of a reliable assistance dog. Wonderful dogs may need to be released from service dog programs but go on to become fantastic pets and may assist the community in other capacities, such as therapy dogs or demonstration dogs.

Submitted by Lisa Wogan | August 26 2009 |

Thanks for your comment. You offer a very interesting perspective. We have a writer working on a story about service dogs and she'd love to talk to you. If you're interested, please contact me at webeditor@thebark.com.
Lisa Wogan

Submitted by Anonymous Helpe... | October 18 2012 |

I realize this article is a little dated and no one may help me but I need to improve this answer. If you encounter or hear a barking helper dog especially in "No Pets" areas (schools malls etc.), the helper dog should be located immedatley as the handler probably requires assisstance.

The level of assisstacne needed can vary from "I'm stuck and can't get the door open," and "someone call 911"

This is why, in my experience, malls ask PET dogs to leave.

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