The case for service animals in church

service animals
photo credit: Morguefile.com

So I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a dog in the nave during Liturgy. I have. And nothing could have been more fitting and right.

Of course, you’ve probably guessed, but it was a service dog working on behalf of a blind woman. He was diligently doing his job, lying quietly at his handler’s feet, waiting for his work.

I only recently came to understand that maybe not everyone views service dogs in Liturgy so positively, which only confused me for a minute.

Most people haven’t had to look as deeply into service dogs as I have. Most people don’t know what they do, how they differ from regular old pets and emotional support animals, and what the parish’s rights are–so the confusion is understandable.

If you don’t know exactly how these dogs operate, I’ve got your back. I genuinely get why it might seem kinda wrong to bring pets to church on Sundays.

Let’s get the conversation started. Here’s a good place to start…

1. Service dogs aren’t actually pets.

I understand the idea of being outraged at the idea of someone’s pet poking around the nave during Liturgy. Omg, the barking? Licking? Playing? Jumping? That’s just…the worst.

Really. Picturing a scene like that literally makes me cringe.

What you may not know is that service dogs are at work. Just as you wouldn’t go to your office job in a swimsuit or create a professional letterhead in Comic Sans, these dogs don’t beg for food when they’re at work. They don’t chase shiny things or bark at their own farts. I can’t speak for what you do when you’re not on the job, but I’m gonna guess that you, my appropriate friend, work inside a certain level of professionalism. Service dogs are trained to do the same thing.

But you can’t take the dog out of the dog, you might argue. True. You can’t. And they act like dogs when they’re not at work. But these are extremely highly trained dogs who are trained specifically to the needs of its handler, and are raised from puppyhood for the purpose of becoming a service dog for this specific person. According to Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), its training is the very thing that makes it a service dog and not a pet or an emotional support animal (quoting, a service dog is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”) 

These dogs can offer deep pressure on an autistic person who is about to experience a terrible flare up–ultimately keeping the person calm and preventing them from needing to leave. And, amazingly, they know when to do it. They can keep a child near to her caregiver who is an elopement risk (which, for a family who is trying to keep track of multiple children at coffee hour, is profoundly necessary). They can even alert their handler to their stimming, which may be distracting for him or her and the surrounding parishioners, and remind him with a signal to stop.

Now, that’s just a dog for autism. These animals are an essential part of many disabled people’s lives. They can pick up dropped items for someone with low mobility; they can do room checks for someone with PTSD; they can lead a blind person to the icons.

I promise you, no matter how smart or how well-trained your pet is, he doesn’t do all that, and definitely not to the degree of establishing and maintaining actual order. Cool, right?

2. Service dogs are not emotional support animals

Another point worth discussing is the easy-to-confuse difference between service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs).

The National Service Animal Registry addresses this distinction pretty explicitly. It says, “(an emotional support animal’s) very presence mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with the handler’s condition” and are not trained to perform disability-specific tasks.

Also, an ESA can be *any* animal, whereas only dogs are eligible to be registered as service animals. (Source: ADATA.org)

So, from an ESA, you won’t necessarily get the kind of orderly behavior you would from a service animal. ESAs are not “on the job.” They do their job simply by existing and being soft and warm and cute on someone’s lap. And no one, except for airlines and hotels, is obligated to accommodate them.

3. Service dogs are not a luxury or an add-on

At this point, you might think, hey that’s pretty cool. But it’s not really necessary all the time. It’s kind of a luxury, right? Or at least, can’t we do without just during church hours?

Sorry, no. Because of how difficult these dogs are to get and maintain, it is much more likely that your parishioner and their service dog were matched based upon a deep need that cause the handler not to be able to function in certain environments. In other words, if you turn away a service animal because you think your parishioner can do without it for a few hours, **you are essentially denying your parishioner access to church.** Because that’s what service dogs provide. Access.

And in some cases, organizations can be pretty aggressive about making sure these highly trained animals are living in environments just as strict as the ones they were brought up in, so the dogs literally cannot be left alone at home (Canine Companions for Independence is one such organization, which magnanimously offers service dogs free of charge, and has to run a pretty tight ship). Legally, if the handler leaves the house, the dog *has* to work. So not only would the parishioner be denied access to church by denying the dog entrance, but in the worst case scenario, it could be cause for the handler to lose the animal altogether.

4. In my humble opinion, service dogs don’t seem to violate the spirit of the canons.

Here’s the big deal, the elephant in the room. What do the canons say? Now, I’m a layperson who has never been to seminary, so take the following for what it’s worth. But here is the only canon I know of that addresses animals in church (This is from Ancient Epitome of Canon LXXXVIII):

“No one may drive any beast into a church except perchance a traveller, urged thereto by the greatest necessity, in default of a shed or resting-place, may have turned aside into said church. For unless the beast had been taken inside, it would have perished, and he, by the loss of his beast of burden, and thus without means of continuing his journey, would be in peril of death. And we are taught that the Sabbath was made for man: wherefore also the safety and comfort of man are by all means to be placed first. But should anyone be detected without any necessity such as we have just mentioned, leading his beast into a church, if he be a cleric let him be deposed; and if a layman, let him be cut off.”

And later,

“Cattle shall not be led into the holy halls, unless the greatest necessity compels it.”

To my knowledge, these are the only mentions of animals in the church in the canons. And here’s what I hear when I read it.

Please, if disaster should strike as the result of turning away an animal, just let the animal in.

We’ll have to navigate this canon carefully because obviously, we are facing something that is worded in such a way that does not perfectly apply to a society which no longer uses animals for primary transportation, and certainly not on a long journey. We’re left to therefore seek the spirit of the canon rather than the letter of it.

And, goodness, I’m not saying I alone have that interpretation. I’m not even saying I have a proper one. But as the mother of a special needs child who intimately understands the definition of both full-on Liturgical and personal disasters, what I see in this canon is a plea to allow parishioners to function in their lives, to find the church as a haven and safety and not the portal to certain catastrophe.

For further direction on the canons, please consult your priest or bishop. I do not have the canonical knowledge to morph antiquated wording into a modern understanding that is solid enough to teach; I am only a mother who knows what lack of access means and who has a strong belief in what the church should be for its disabled members.

5. Service dogs may be legally ejected for (unaccountable) inappropriate behavior.

Ultimately, if for whatever reason, the service dog is behaving inappropriately, and the handler does nothing to stop it, it is within the legal right of the church to send it away.

The ADA says in IV: Handler’s Responsibilities:

“The handler is responsible for the care and supervision of his or her service animal. If a service animal behaves in an unacceptable way and the person with a disability does not control the animal, a business or other entity does not have to allow the animal onto its premises. Uncontrolled barking, jumping on other people, or running away from the handler are examples of unacceptable behavior for a service animal. A business has the right to deny access to a dog that disrupts their business.”

Also,

“…Businesses, public programs, and transportation providers may exclude a service animal when the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. If a service animal is growling at other shoppers at a grocery store, the handler may be asked to remove the animal.”

That’s a lot of quoting, but it’s meaningful.

By allowing a service animal in church, don’t worry–you won’t be roped into a situation in which you have no rights. If your parishioner shows up with a very badly behaving service dog (which would indeed be a very rare case), you can absolutely turn them away. 

It probably won’t happen, based on how intensely they are trained, but if it does, you have rights, too, my friend.

I encourage you to give a service animal a chance.

 

I’ve written this because I think, if you’ve taken the time to read this top to bottom, that access for disabled parishioners means something to you. I am grateful for people like you, because you are saving your people, no matter what their challenges are. Thank you.

I hope that you find this helpful in your journey.

 

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