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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Scooter's Dog

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The place dogs inhabit in our lives has changed radically over the last 10 years. For more and more people, dogs are no longer property; they’re family. As we’ve come to accept our pets as more important characters in our lives, it’s been tough to push some of the boundaries that have existed for a long time in our society.

We’re seeing this today with a legal struggle going on in Oregon with a boy named Scooter, who suffers from autism, and his therapy dog, Madison. Scooter’s school is not allowing Madison in the classroom, despite the fact that the German Shepherd is trained to diffuse Scooter’s frequent, lengthy tantrums that result from his autism. The school district says Scooter is doing just fine without the dog.

I’m no expert on special education, but I can’t think of a universe in which frequent, dramatic, falling-on-the-floor tantrums qualify as “fine.” The prohibition against a dog that could control these situations and allow Scooter to get the education he needs and deserves makes absolutely no sense to me.

The difference here appears to be a semantic one: a “service” dog, versus a “therapy” dog. A “service” dog is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is why you would never hear this argument over a Seeing Eye dog. A therapy dog may not be.

This discrepancy to me represents the overall bias against mental health in this country. There is in fact no separation between body and mind as so many of us have come to believe. The mind is part of the body. The health of the mind is an aspect of the health of the body. Because Scooter’s disability is centered in his mind, his needs are seen as less legitimate than those of a person who has lost his sight. This is a false separation that leaves students like Scooter in the lurch even when their families are doing everything they can to help them overcome obstacles and become part of the able-bodied, able-minded world. If Madison can help Scooter do that, then I see no reason why he should be deprived of this very valuable tool in his educational environment. I commend his parents and Disability Rights Oregon for entering into this lawsuit to bring this issue to the attention of the country and to give this young boy what he needs. I look forward to the day when a therapy dog is as well-respected as an integral part of a person’s life as a service dog is today.

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