Editor’s Note: This is the first of a 6-part series from Petful (formerly Pets Adviser) called “Fake Service Dogs, Real Problem.” Today’s post: How everyday pets are being illegally posed as service dogs for the “disabled” — and why we should be concerned.
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Imagine your world is complete darkness or silence. Imagine you are the worried parent of an autistic child who knows that child may wander off in the blink of an eye. How would you navigate beyond your four walls without fear?
Now think about a source of assistance and comfort, protection and affection. Four paws and a wagging tail. Enter a highly trained, skilled, disciplined service dog.
The relationship between a service dog and his companion — his partner — is one of mutual respect, trust, honor, faith and complete love. Service dogs can become the eyes, ears, arms or legs to a person in need. They lead, guide and protect. They improve the quality of life for so many individuals with differing physical and mental challenges. One partner of a service dog says, “I entrust my life to my dog — he has never failed me!”
A service dog can be any size or breed. It does not need to carry special identification, register with any agency or even wear a vest. The rules are very clear for public businesses — and they leave the field wide open for dishonest, unethical criminals to take advantage of the law.
Dogs are used as service companions around the world. They are specially trained to assist humans in many capacities:
- Psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, phobias, PTSD)
Service dogs may carry medications or oxygen tanks, or pull wheelchairs. In many countries, including the United States, service dogs are protected by law and must be provided access to public places. It is not unusual to find a service dog with her human partner in malls, restaurants, theaters, hotels or amusement parks, or on trains, buses or planes. Anywhere people go, their service dogs may follow.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established the law that provides access to public places for service dogs, areas that are typically prohibited to pets.
The Department of Justice allows businesses to ask only two questions of individuals with service dogs:
1. Is the dog needed because of a disability?
2. What task is the dog trained to perform to mitigate the disability?
Service Dog Cheats
Business owners are complaining of a recent increase in the number of people “faking” the status of their pets as service dogs to gain access to areas otherwise off limits. Hotels, restaurants, trains and airplanes are all targets. For example, it is a widely accepted routine for top show dogs to fly from competition to competition in the passenger cabin of planes as “service dogs.”
I listened to a woman bragging at a recent dinner party about how she takes her Jack Russell terrier everywhere because she printed a “service animal” certificate from the Internet. She can stay at hotels without paying the pet fee. She boasted that she doesn’t worry about leaving the dog in a parked car because he goes where she goes. “No one dares ask about him,” she said with a laugh.
It is virtually impossible to spot a fake service dog by appearance. One woman blogs that she sees her dog as doing a community service by posing. He is an obedient, beautiful, well-groomed, intelligent Border Collie who goes everywhere with her. She contends that his appearance and nice behavior create a better public perception of service dogs. She is breaking the law.
Service dogs are not show pieces. They do not work to look good or entertain the public. They are not walking canine advertisements. Service dogs are working animals. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support (therapy dogs) do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. To falsify the qualifications of a service dog is a criminal offense.
What is the harm in posing pets as service dogs? The biggest backlash is creating public resentment of real service dogs. One act of disobedience, one minute of misbehavior, one unfortunate attack from a faker can create a lifetime of public suspicion, mistrust and tension. Handicapped individuals who depend on their service dogs, and the animals themselves, do not deserve the added stigma.
What Can Be Done?
How can the abuse of the ADA regulations be enforced and the fakers stopped?
While an identification protocol is controversial, it may be the only system that businesses at risk and individuals deserving ADA protection can be mutually safe-guarded. The liability to a business challenging the identity of a dog is huge. Falsely accusing a valid service dog can result in lawsuits. On the other hand, allowing access to a dog that isn’t a trained service dog is a danger if that animal later causes damages to property or to a person.
Some service dog owners, handlers and trainers view the option of legal identification as an essential benefit. A certification program ensures the animal and the handler are trained and qualified for assistance. Most service dogs and their partners pass a stringent training protocol. Application through an agency for certification could certainly become a part of that process. A government-issued badge, vest or tag would identify the dog to anyone observing that the animal is indeed in service.
Not all service dogs are professionally trained. Many agencies charge fees of $20,000 or more for professionally trained dogs. The waiting lists for grants, scholarships and even the dogs trained for specific disabilities extend for months or years. For this reason, some disabled people are forced to look to dogs trained through amateur efforts. The current law does not require a service dog be professionally trained. There is a concern that a legally mandated certification process could impair the rights of such people.
It’s Not Going Away Soon
The difficulty in determining a fake service dog — and the liability of questioning — makes the problem hard to solve. Frauds are occasionally discovered, and some states prosecute the crime. In California, conviction of faking a service animal is punishable by $1,000 fine and six months’ jail time.
Proponents of a tougher legal position advocate harder penalties, including sanctions against owning a dog, extended community service, stiff fines and jail sentences.
Nearly all dog lovers would appreciate taking their pet everywhere they go. But service dog “fakers” fail to consider the circumstances of those who depend on the value of the animals for their well-being. As more abuse occurs, it will provoke further restrictions on valid service animals.
In the United States, there is no law requiring registration of an animal used for human service. There is a free, voluntary service provided by the United States Service Dog Registry (no, it is not connected to the government) that encourages self-registration and offers information for handlers.
- Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended. Department of Justice. http://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm
- “Minimum Standards for Training Service Dogs.” Assistance Dogs International Inc. http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/Standards/ServiceDogStandards.php
- “Fakers — Pets in Public.” Service Dogs of Florida Inc. http://2012.servicedogsfl.org/?p=28
- “Service Dog Certification: Spotting Fake Certification/Registration/ID.” Service Dog Central. http://servicedogcentral.org/content/fake-service-dog-credentials
- “Abuse of the Service Dog Title.” Russell Hartstein, CPDT. http://www.funpawcare.com/2012/06/23/abuse-of-the-service-dog-title/
- Food and Agricultural Code of California. Division 14, Chapter 3.5, Section 30850. http://animallaw.info/statutes/stusca_civil_54_55_2.htm#s542
- The United States Service Dog Registry.