One month ago in Rhine, Wisconsin, a 13-year-old dog named Jesse died while trying to save the life of her friend. A fire had broken out in her home. Springing to action, she first helped her owner and employer-Jamie Hanson. Jesse brought her artificial leg and a phone to call for help. She then, with fire raging all around, dragged Hanson to the front door of the house. Yet, Jesse was not done, as she heard meows coming from the second floor. Indeed, her friend, a cat, was in trouble. Jesse went back into the burning home and up the stairs. Neither made it out alive.
Jesse was a service dog-one of an estimated and rapidly growing 20,000+ that work in the United States. There are four categories of health-services supplied by dogs. The first is guiding. These dogs help the blind and visually impaired-guiding them through neighborhoods, traffic, stairs, sidewalks, buildings, and crowds of people. The second is hearing. These dogs aid the deaf and audio impaired. They alert their owners to various and particular sounds: doorbells, smoke alarms, crying babies, and timers. Moreover, they locate the exact position of noises. The third kind of service is physical. These dogs facilitate with mobility. They raise people up off of beds, chairs, and couches. They pull wheelchairs. They carry backpacks. They pick up items dropped on the floor. They retrieve foodstuffs and drink from the kitchen. They open and close doors. They help people get dressed and undressed. They aid with walking by providing a counter-balance and brace against falls and slips. If any serious accident does occur, they press an alert button and run to get help. The fourth kind of service is mental. These dogs work for humans who have panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric problems. They provide comfort and contact. They turn on lights and open doors, so their frightened employers don’t have to. They make space in crowds if their employers get scared. They retrieve medicine and water. They remember the specific times that the medication needs to be taken.
This type of work is not easy. Selected puppies are raised in special homes until the age of fifteen months. From there, they undergo six months to a year of intensive, daily training to become certified. Once placed in a home, these dogs are at work: all day, every single day. Their performance is constantly monitored. Refresher training is not unusual. While at work, they are not allowed to socialize with other dogs. They are not allowed to socialize with other humans. Even in sleep, these dogs always have one eye, ear, or nostril open and alert. They work until the day they can no longer satisfactorily perform their job-on average, eight years. Indeed, by law (the Americans with Disabilities Act), these dogs are not “pets.” They are “service dogs.”
Yet, for all of this training, labor, and legal status, there are large inconsistencies. Following the fire, for instance, there was an outpouring of public concern. But the direction of this distress was not towards Jesse, a service dog who took care of Hanson on a daily basis, who did her job day in and day out. Rather, this concern was directed almost exclusively towards her owner. Jamie Hanson described to a group of reporters how Jesse “sacrificed her life,” not for a cat (as it really happened), but to help save Hanson herself. She repeatedly referred to Jesse, not as a service dog, but as “a pet,” “a gift,” and “a child.” This is a top-down view-one filled with pity, paternalism, and a human-centric focus. Why is this?
The Delta Society, the largest organization dedicated solely to service dogs, describes its mission as “improving human health through service and therapy animals.” The manifold of collective and independent trainers focus similarly on the human concern. Within their manuals, the dogs receive merit in regards to their behavioral standards and training. ‘Look!’ they boast, ‘at the amazing dog, we trained.’ But the dogs themselves-their wants, needs, concerns-receive little to no attention. These organizations and individuals speak often of “retirement” for the dogs. But there is no standardized, financial planning for this. Rather it is voluntary-up to the owners and trainers to deal with or not. There are national and state laws regarding service animals. But, in reality, these legal measures are solely for the protection the owners from damage or loss of property. There are no labor laws regulating the working conditions or the health and well-being of these employees. These dogs may work, but they are not considered to be workers. There are numerous service-related advocacy groups. But they protect the rights of the disabled humans, not the dogs. There are numerous bereavement groups. But, again, their attention is spotlighted on the humans, not the dogs.
The service-dog industry is not the only group at fault in the creation of this perspective. As paradoxical as it may sound, the current application of animal-rights results in the same conclusion. Here, the focus is on sentience. “The question is not,” Jeremy Bentham explained and Peter Singer affirmed, “can they [animals] reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” We should feel sorry for animals. They are, according to the ASPCA, HSUS, and PETA, helpless and voiceless. They are victims. They are like children.
But something is amiss. For “every act of giving,” as the historian E.P. Thompson argued, “is an act of getting.” We know the gift: it is pity. But what about the getting? This is where animal-right’s philosophy fails miserably. Animals-as actors: building, creating, and shaping society (i.e. the getting)-are rarely, if ever, considered. In fact, their agency, as an historical and sociology reality, is not only neglected within the animal right’s community; it is oftentimes dismissed as undeserving of consideration. Instead, animals are perceived and presented as helpless victims and static characters. These creatures are, consequently, segregated from society. This is a top-down view-one which serves to reproduce and reinforce similar beliefs among the general populace. Indeed, this dominate perspective has not only ignored and marginalized the animals of the past and the present, but it has erected obstacles to the relationships we seek to establish with animals in the future.
Jessie would not want your sorrow or sympathy. She would want you to recognize her abilities and skills. She would want you to understand how hard and difficult her work was. How many among the readership would want this kind of job? How many among the readership would ever have the level of energy and patience required to deal with a disabled person: every single day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for 8+ years?
Jessie would want you to examine her working circumstances and conditions. While mostly non-profit oriented, the trainers are nevertheless making a living from these service animals-charging approximately $20,000 per dog (most of which is paid by foundations and grants). The owners are saving considerable amounts of money by utilizing these dogs, as opposed to paying for 24 hour human-care. Veterinarians are making millions from these dogs. The pet industry-food, treats, toys-is making millions from these dogs. Yet, what do these service animals get in return? Where is their cut of the money and profit that they are producing?
Jessie would want you to recognize that service dogs are active and productive workers in society. They are members of the working-class. Service dogs deserve rights because they have earned them. They should have regular time-off each week. They should have vacations each year. They should be paid a minimum wage. This money would be held by a neutral third-party. It would then be dispensed for time-off. Days spent socializing with other dogs-playing, running, jumping, swimming, making friends. No duties. No tasks. No work. The wages would be used for disability, if they are injured on the job. The wages would be used for the creation of retirement communities, where they themselves would eventually retire. Each of these rights and regulations should be recognized, stipulated, and enforced by custom and law.
Therefore, in honor of Jessie, the next time you cross paths with a service dog, your perspective should be turned up-side-down. Don’t glance from above: “Wow, look at that beautiful, well-trained dog!” But instead, question for below: “Hey! does that dog ever get a fuckin’ day off?”
JASON HRIBAL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org