Ahhh, words. They can be almost as fun to play with as dogs — and that’s just the beginning of what words and dogs have in common.
Words, like dogs, can be used to befriend, repel or attack, depending on the person behind them. Both can inform us, frustrate us, console, entertain and enthrall us. Words, like dogs, can bite or soothe. Both need to be used responsibly.
And, given we humans created both of them, it is up to us to safeguard them and, once in a while, stand up for them — as in, for example, when they are being abused.
Generally, both words and dogs are at their best when they are unrestrained.
And yet sometimes they need to be restrained.
And yet too much restraint can make them dull and lifeless, sucking out all their natural spirit and joy.
It’s not this week’s presidential debate that’s sending me off on this wordy tangent. It’s the word “facility,” and the growing use of the term “facility dog.”
In a post last week, I lauded the University of Southern California’s decision to add a “facility dog” to the staff of its student health center — but I poked a little fun at the term.
“Facility dog” is a cold, undescriptive and institutional-sounding label, in my view, that just doesn’t go with the goldendoodle’s playful given name, Professor Beauregard Tirebiter.
Beauregard is trained as a therapy dog. Calling him a “facility dog” — no matter the reason behind it — disguises that fact. Words are supposed to clarify, not obfuscate.
I don’t like the idea of labeling a dog based on the building in which he works, as opposed to the noble work he is doing.
But, most of all, I just don’t like the word “facility.”
USC didn’t come up with the term “facility dog;” it is being used increasingly to describe a dog — generally a therapy dog — that is based in a particular hospital, nursing home, school, prison, mental institution or other … well, facility.
In journalism school, I was taught not to use the word “facility,” because its meaning is so vague and the mere sight of it tends to put people to sleep.
But it’s also, in its vagueness, a safe word — the kind bureaucracies like, not just for their political correctness, but because it lets them avoid plain talk, clarity and specificity.
“Facility dog is an official certification as designated by Canine Angels Service Teams,” reads a comment sent into ohmidog! from someone at USC’s health center, in response to the post.
“While his credential is ‘Facility Dog,’ the University of Southern California has given him the title ‘Wellness Dog’ as his intended purpose is to enhance the wellness of students on campus.
“He does not work in a therapy/counseling setting, but rather as a staff member in the Office for Wellness and Health Promotion. As such, he is not a pet and does not violate the USC policy referenced in the article.”
(I pointed out in my post that USC has a no-pets policy, only to suggest that maybe it’s time — given all dogs do for us, given “wellness” should be achieved campus-wide as opposed to just at the Student Health Center, given all dogs, in a way, are “wellness dogs” — to give those antiquated rules another look.)
I almost hate to say it, but I’m not too keen on “wellness dog,” either. It, too, is vague and touchy-feely and fails to describe the work Beau is doing.
But it’s a little better than “facility dog.”
“Facility dog” makes it sound like Beau is manning the boilers. “Wellness dog” makes it sound like he’s dispensing medication, taking blood pressure and giving nutritional advice.
Google the term “wellness dog” now and you get links mostly to the dog food that uses that name, or pet insurance companies only to happy to provide your dog a “wellness plan.”
But “wellness dog” will surely join the ranks of terms used to describe dogs that are trained to help us humans cope.
There are already enough of those terms to thoroughly confuse the public —
service dogs, assistance dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, comfort dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs and seizure dogs — and my personal favorite “companion animal.”
“Companion animal” is what we used to call a pet. As in:
“Hi, I’m John and this is my dog, Bowser. Do you mind if we use the facilities?”
“You are welcome here, just make sure your companion animal uses the fecal matter containment system.”
“You mean a poop bag?”
“We try not to use that term.”
The surplus of terminology for dogs who help us is first and foremost a reflection of just how incredibly much dogs help us — with disabilities, with illnesses that range from diabetes to epilepsy to PTSD, and with all the other obstacles, fears and anxieties that get in our way.
Those distinctions become important because different dogs, depending on their label, have different rights.
Under the legal definition, service dogs are those trained to perform tasks for an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability.
A service animal is entitled to accompany that person anywhere members of the public are allowed.
Emotional support dogs, comfort dogs and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Assistance dog” is a catch all term to describe them all, and is not a legal category.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need all those distinctions — and any dog that is helping a person cope would be allowed to accompany that human to a restaurant, workplace, etc.
But, in an ideal world, the word “facility” wouldn’t exist, either.
Canine Angels, the outfit that provided Beauregard to the university, says on its website that it trains and provides service dogs, “social dogs” and “facility dogs.”
It defines facility dogs as those that “are placed with teachers and health care/rehabilitation professionals whose clients/students can benefit from the therapeutic qualities that a well-trained dog can offer. These dogs can provide emotional and unconditional support and can be used by their handlers to motivate and reward clients/students. Facility Dogs live with their handlers and are only allowed public access to the specific facility at which their handler is employed.”
Sometimes, those handlers are called … wait for it … facilitators.
I doubt that there is any significant difference between what a therapy dog is trained to do and what a facility dog is trained to do. Similarly, I’d go out on a limb and say a “wellness dog” and a therapy dog likely receive identical training.
Therapy dog is a perfectly fine term, and there’s no need to put a mask on it.
When a university decides it wants to have a writer on campus, allowing him or her to pursue their mission while their brilliance rubs off on the student body, they call him or her “writer-in-residence,” not “facility writer.”
Dogs deserve at least that much respect.