TORONTO – For almost six years, Chopper has visited thousands of people in schools, hospitals, and seniors centres across California.
But now the six-year-old Boston terrier’s owner says he’s furious after Chopper’s therapy dog status was revoked – apparently because of the way he dressed.
Chopper’s owner Mark Shaffer says he received the following email from Pet Partners (formerly The Delta Society), the therapy animal nonprofit with whom Chopper was registered, after returning from a 10-day road trip on May 10.
“Pet Partners regrets to inform you that your registration with our organization is being suspended effective today,” the email reads. “Our organization has specific expectations about appearance and professionalism which unfortunately are not met by your team.”
Apparently, they were concerned with Chopper’s “biker dog” appearance, complete with leather vest, sunglasses, bandanna, and even a small motorcycle for him to ride.
“We are concerned about the clothing in which Chopper is in the community.”
Registration and certification organizations are important for therapy dogs, as many venues will not accept a therapy dog unless it comes with a stamp of approval from an organization like Pet Partners, ensuring the animal has the proper training and temperament to be a therapy dog.
The decision left Shaffer, who has been affiliated with Pet Partners for almost ten years, in shock.
“Disbelief,” Shaffer told ABC 10 News in San Diego, California. “There was anger and there was a lot of hurt.”
What makes the decision more surprising is that Shaffer’s decade-long association with Pet Partners actually includes two different “biker dogs.”
The first “biker dog”, Bandit, passed away in 2008 according to a posting on Shaffer’s (or is that Chopper’s) website.
“The point of this, for 10 years, this organization has had knowledge, and awareness of both Bandit and Chopper dressing up as “biker dogs”, visiting so many people in need, and making a positive difference to thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people over the years,” Shaffer wrote in an angry post on Chopper’s Facebook page shortly after receiving the email.
He says the organization objected to his biker apparel the same week as the biker gang shootings in Waco, Texas.
That incident left nine dead and 18 wounded, and sparked what Shaffer says is an unjust prejudice against the “biker look”.
“They claim they don’t allow dogs in costumes. This is not a costume,” Shaffer said. “This is his persona. This is what he is.”
Pet Partners has released the following statement to the media.
“While we recognize that many pet owners enjoy costuming their pets at home and even in public settings, particularly around many holiday events, the use of costumes and clothing in an animal-assisted therapy environment raises a number of concerns for the animal, the handler and the clients or patients being seen. Pet Partners harbors no ill will towards motorcycle enthusiasts. Holiday costumes, tutus or clothing other than a scarf are also not allowed. We wish Mark and Chopper all the best and hope that they will continue to bring smiles to the people they meet. Mark did receive written warning to correct the behavior before the suspension to follow the appropriate protocol. He is free to dress Chopper as he pleases, just not while volunteering at facilities as a therapy animal team.”
For his part, Shaffer says he plans to try and get Chopper registered with another pet therapy registration.