Good dog, bad Santa

A mall Santa refused to see a girl with a pit bull as a service dog. How can good dogs get past a bad label?

Screenshot from Facebook
Pup-cake the service dog is pictured with Abcde Santos, 7, the little girl he supports. They were recently turned away from visting a mall Santa because he did not feel comfortable with the Pit bull.

It seems that pit bulls just can’t get on one Santa’s nice list no matter how much good they do in the world.

Case in point: This week a mall Santa in Mission Viejo, California allegedly turned away a little girl with autism because he stereotyped her pit bull service dog as something to fear.

Abcde (pronounced “Ab-suh-Dee”) Santos, age seven, and her service dog Pup-Cake were apparently refused Santa service on the basis of her service dog’s breed after the big elf allegedly said, “those dogs eat people,” according to the Orange County Register.

On Pup-Cake’s official Facebook page, supporters posted thousands of messages of love and support for the dog that has been the child’s most effective link to interacting with the world around her.

Rhoda Robinson posted, “Pure love and absolute empathy flows between Pup-Cake and his sweet girl. I'm sorry, but there is NO room for mean ignorance in a Santa suit. Pup-Cake, you're AWESOME!!"

The Noerr Programs, which supplies Santas and holiday entertainment for hire to public venues has apologized on its Facebook page and fired the Santa for his alleged actions.

“For 26 years, The Noerr Programs has devoted itself to sharing the heart of Santa through the creation of magical Christmas experiences for all children and their families,” posted Judy Noerr, CEO of The Noerr Programs. “The entire team at The Noerr Programs sincerely apologizes for any distress caused by this situation, and truly regrets the incident. We have reached out to the girl’s family, in an effort to extend a private Santa visit with complimentary photos of both the child and her service dog.”

According to media reports and the dog’s Facebook page, Abcde’s mother said she offered to take Pup-Cake out of the mall completely, asking that the Santa just wave and smile at the dog.

However, according to the mother, Santa said, “No, because they support those dogs.” The family said when they tried to explain laws on service dogs, the Santa then said he was allergic, the Register reports.

“What most people don’t understand is that all the discrimination in this case and others like it is against the disabled people, not the dogs,” says Stacey Coleman, executive director of The Animal Farm Foundation in a phone interview. “The dogs are totally unaware it’s going on. The disabled people are not being allowed to rent places, go into shops and in this case, have a moment with Santa Claus.”

The Animal Farm Foundation in Bangall, NY specializes in finding dogs in shelters across the country that have been classified as “pit bulls,” assessing their natures and interests and then training them to become free service dogs for people with a wide range of disabilities.

“A pit bull is in the eye of the beholder,” says Ms. Coleman. “There is no genetic coherent breed that is a pit bull, only dogs people label as such. So once the idea of a behavior based on genetics is off the table it’s nature vs. nurture and training.”

According to the American Pit Bull Registry located in Antioch, Tennessee, which gives pit bull service dog certification guidelines, “Under the American's With Disabilities Act ( ADA ) and other various laws world-wide used to protect individuals with disabilities, discrimination against an individual's Service Dog breed of choice is illegal.”

Pup-Cake’s Facebook fans, who posted on a Facebook page for the dog, were not appeased that a canine that has been trained and devoted to doing good could still be stereotyped as a bad dog.

“I understand that some people may be scared of this breed. Or big dogs in general,” posted Chelsea Harrison on the Noerr Facebook wall. “But what that Santa needs to understand is that this is a service dog. Who has been through extensive training so I knows how to behave in public while serving its purpose, which is taking care of the little girl.”

However, Coleman looks at this case and that of a small Louisiana town where an ordinance would have called for all pit bulls and Rottweilers to be taken away from their owners by Dec. 1 and euthanized. After public outcry, prompted in particular by one local family with a pit bull service dog named Zeus, the ordinance has been tabled pending further review.

Coleman said it’s the service dogs being fought for by people with disabilities that has gotten the public to understand not to judge a dog by its label. 

“I look at both of these cases and marvel at how far we’ve come, because 10 years ago we would have been in federal court trying to get a person their federally protected right to these animals,” Coleman said. “Now the court of public opinion gets the job done because the public has caught up.”

Pup-Cake’s owner posted the following statement on Facebook: “Thank you all for your support. As always my packs goal is education and equality for those with [dis]abilities. I am beyond grateful that the Management Team at the "Shops at Mission Viejo" and "Noerr" share in this goal. Their eagerness to resolve the situation, ensure proper training is in place and silencing an "elf" that has been proven dishonest by all parties involved shows just that. As a team we were able to ensure that going forward the Christmas wishes of ALL children are treated equally! Woof Woof!”

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