Daniel Ruth: When is a service dog not a service dog? It's getting hard to say

Eleanor Rigby gave birth to puppies at Airside F in the Tampa airport while her owners were preparing to board a plane to Philadelphia. [Emily Nipps, Tampa International Airport]
Eleanor Rigby gave birth to puppies at Airside F in the Tampa airport while her owners were preparing to board a plane to Philadelphia. [Emily Nipps, Tampa International Airport]
Published Jun. 5, 2018

Maybe what all the hub-bub goes to prove is that one person's service animal is merely another's little sweetums, cuddly boo-boo dog. And stop drinking out of the toilet! Now!

It was certainly a lovely, pulling-at-the-heartstrings moment when Eleanor Rigby, a cute-as-the-dickens golden retriever, unexpectedly gave birth to eight — count 'em, eight — bouncing puppies of joy in the middle of the Airside F at Tampa International Airport a few days ago.

Needless to say Mom and proud papa Golden Nugget missed their flight to Philadelphia. And all of us dog lovers went, altogether now, "Awwwwwwww!"

Alas, since the birth of the pups, a bit of a controversy has erupted over what exactly constitutes a "service dog"?

Eleanor Rigby and Golden Nugget's owner Karen Van Atter insisted the two hounds were indeed service dogs, although she admitted to Tampa Bay Times reporter Christopher Spata that neither canine had come from a specialized breeding program for service animals, nor had they been trained by an accredited service dog handler.

PREVIOUS COVERAGEWhen a dog has puppies at the airport, opinions abound

Van Atter said the dogs were supposed to be able to detect drops in her blood pressure. And maybe they do. Or maybe they don't. But the incident at TIA does underscore the often murky world of what constitutes a service animal.

There was a time when the issue was fairly evident. Nobody would begrudge a blind person using a seeing-eye dog to help them navigate the world. So, too, it would not be odd for someone with an obvious disability like using a wheelchair to rely on a trained service dog to assist in daily life.

But in recent years, the term "service animal" has taken on a much broader definition. We've all seen people claiming to need a service animal to help them deal with allergies, or mental health concerns.

And that has led to airports resembling a collection of Noah's Ark-esque critters as people boarding their flights with iguanas, or peacocks, or llamas claim their animals are essential to their emotional stability, even while that hedgehog is nibbling at your peanuts in the middle seat.

To be sure, the service animal industry has become rather vague. The New Yorker once published a piece about how easy it is for just about anyone to obtain a piece of paper from some rather dubious sources attesting to someone's absolute need to be able to travel with their python service animal.

In Van Atter's case, the feel-good nature of Eleanor Rigby's delivery of those adorable puppies was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that groups such as the International Guide Dog Federation, Assistance Dogs International and Southeastern Guide Dogs say dogs who are not spayed or neutered can never be used in service.

The problem is a big, blurry gray area.

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Van Atter described Eleanor Rigby and Golden Nugget as not only her service dogs, but her pets, too, which among the organizations that work with providing and training service animals is a huge no-no. These dogs aren't supposed to be considered pets in the traditional sense of the term but working animals.

One could argue that certainly all dogs labor in the service of their owners, providing comfort and companionship and loyalty. You know that old saw about how no matter how bad a day you've had, or how many people might hate your guts, at least your dog is happy to see you walk through the door.

Gracie the Goldendoodle and Riley, the spawn of Satan Labradoodle, certainly are service dogs to us by enhancing our lives, except when Riley decides to start chewing on the television remote control. He has ... mischief issues.

But there is no way we would ever attempt to foist them off as service dogs to get them on a plane. There's probably a law about interfering with a flight crew by licking them into submission.