The four-legged scandal no one is talking about

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Stacie Kitchner’s 4-year old, loyal, obedient, well-behaved Golden Retriever, Sam, goes everywhere she goes. In the mornings, Stacie sometimes outfits Sam with a vest or bandana, sometimes not. They dine at restaurants together, go to the bank, shop at the mall. When they travel, 67-pound Sam rides on-board with Stacie, not in the cargo hold with the other dogs his size.

Forrest Brifton’s 5-year old loyal, obedient, well-behaved Golden Retriever, Chaco, goes everywhere he goes. Each morning, Chaco is outfitted with a vest. Large, white block letters spell out “Service Dog” along the side. Forrest carries a National Service Dog Registry identification card in his wallet along with an official letter from a doctor prescribing him a dog. Together, they dine at restaurants, go to the bank, visit the mall, and travel on-board airplanes.

Can you identify which of these two is a legally recognized, legitimate Service Dog Team and which is a fake? Read on to discover which one is taking advantage of the system.

Want to take your dog with you anywhere? Take them into hotels that don’t permit dogs? Take them into stores and malls that don’t allow them? It’s simple. And in most states, it’s legal too. And no one dares utter a word in protest.

In June 2014, a “service dog” pooped in the aisle forcing a US Airways plane to make an emergency landing so a Hazmat team could enter and clean the carpet.

A ‘Service Dog Team’ is used to describe a service dog, that has been trained to meet specific disability-related needs, and the handler/owner for which the dog has been trained to assist. Legitimate service dogs are trained for hundreds of hours and can perform a variety of specific tasks tailored to their handler, such as opening doors and picking up items, providing guidance to the visually impaired, to sniffing out allergens and alerting to oncoming seizures, or calming a person with stress or panic disorder and many, many more.

More specifically, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as:

…dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.

Service dogs, because of the wide variety of services and assistance they provide, come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds. Yes, any dog, from a 2-pound Chihuahua to a 200-pound Newfoundland, as long as they are providing a necessary service to a disabled handler, can legitimately be service dogs. Likewise, the handlers who service dogs assist can include those with obvious physical limitations, like blindness or mobility impairments, or those with “invisible” disabilities, like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or mental illness, and many conditions in between.

Service dogs are not “pets.” They are as important to their handler’s day to day life, mobility, and ability to function as a wheelchair, crutches, or cane is to someone with a disability that warrants their use.

Additionally, the ADA protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs in public places not normally considered dog-friendly.

State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.

There are, however, some requirements. Service dogs must be leashed, harnessed, or tethered unless such a device would interfere with the dog’s ability to perform his work, in which case the dog must be under full control of the handler through voice or hand signals.

Legitimate service dogs are well trained and a necessity to their handlers. They are trained to not be disruptive or cause a scene while in public. You will never see a service dog jumping up at people, barking or growling (unless alerting their handler to a problem), or even using the bathroom inappropriately.

Still, despite written laws the both define a service animal and explain the rights and requirements of service dog teams, the general public, including business owners and their staff, are largely unaware and misinformed.

Service dogs are NOT required to wear vests, collars, or bandanas that specifically identify them as a service animal, nor are the dogs or their handlers required to obtain certain licenses, identifications cards, or official certification. There is no central governing agency which either trains, certifies, or otherwise verifies the legitimacy of a service animal. There is no official training or obedience protocol that all service dogs must adhere to, simply that they cannot “cause a disturbance” while in public.

In fact, many legitimate, legal service dogs have been trained in the home setting, by their handler.

Although service dog vests, bandanas, or other forms of identification are not required, a vast majority of legitimate service dogs do wear them in a simple effort by their disabled handlers to avoid embarrassing, even disruptive or unsettling questions, to be left alone, or in hopes of peacefully going about their day without confrontation.

So, what’s to prevent a person, like Forrest Brifton, from fraudulently strapping a service dog vest onto his dog, Chaco, and walking through his local mall?

Truthfully, not much.

While the federal government has done an excellent job of putting easily enforceable laws into place that provide and protect the rights of disabled persons and their service dogs at a national level, little has been done to prevent the fraudulent misrepresentation of family pets as service dogs.

Ambiguity in the definition of a service animal, lack of a central governing and certifying organization, and fear of both public backlash and costly litigation by business owners have created loopholes in the system that are big enough to drive a truck through – and people by the tens of thousands are taking advantage.

Because of online service animal

Because of online service animal “certification” and registries, there are several pet iguanas that have been registered and issued documentation and ID cards claiming they are legitimate service animals.

In fact, the laws are so vague that, prior to May 2011 when the ADA updated their definition of a service animal to only include dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses, it wasn’t unheard of for people to claim a cat, a pet monkey, even an iguana was a legitimate service animal, thereby granting themselves the authority to bring those animals into restaurants, movie theaters, malls, banks, and precluding themselves from paying fees associated with bringing them into hotels, rental properties, and onboard airplanes – and, because businesses and staff don’t understand the laws completely, they see a vest and ID card and believe the animal is legit!

A simple google search for “service dog vests” returns over 4 million hits from websites offering “official service dog” vests, certification cards, ID’s, and official looking documents, some for the bargain basement price of $39. Many of these sites even provide customers with a written prescription, or “official” letter from a physician or psychiatrist detailing their “patient’s” need for a service animal. Just answer a few yes or no questions in an online questionnaire and, voila!

It is estimated that there are roughly 20,000 true, legitimate service dog teams in the entire nation, yet hundreds of thousands of vests, certificates, and ID cards are sold every year. It is perfectly legal, in all 50 states, to buy, sell, and possess a service dog vest. The big business of selling such paraphernalia rakes in millions of dollars each year, from both those knowingly bucking the system and those who sincerely believe that answering a few questions and putting a vest and ID card on their dog makes them legit.

Faking a service dog to gain access to public spaces is really not much different than using your grandmother’s handicapped parking placard – with two major differences: it’s easy to prove the placard isn’t yours, and the penalties if you’re caught are steep and easily enforceable.

Although the ADA’s service dog policies apply on a national level, the enforcement of those policies falls under the responsibility of each state. To date, only 16 states have specific written laws pertaining either to the misrepresentation of a service dog or to misrepresenting oneself as disabled. To view the written service dog laws in your own state, click here.

Many people claim their pets are service dogs simply to avoid placing their dogs in the cargo hold of airplanes during travel.

Despite all of the good established by ADA laws that protect the rights of the disabled, those same laws have left business owners and authorities with their hands tied. In an effort to protect the privacy of the disabled, very limited inquiries into the legitimacy of a service dog are allowed. Businesses, staff, and officials may legally only ask two questions to a service dog handler:

1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

It is unlawful to ask about a person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

But, fixing the severely broken system isn’t quite as easy as you might think.

Not only is it next to impossible to disprove the legitimacy of a service dog team, the risks of attempting to do so far outweigh the rewards. For example, if staff suspect that a person entering their place of business alongside a dog is fraudulently doing so, they can ask the above two questions – which a person passing their pet off as a service dog will have no moral issue lying about. Still not convinced, they may ask the person and their dog to leave.

It’s very risky for businesses to deny access to people with service dogs, even when they suspect those dogs are merely pets. If they do so, and those suspicions prove to be unfounded, if the service dog team proves to be legitimate, they face serious civil penalties and fees upwards of $55,000 per offense.

Some people believe – regardless of the legislation – they have a right to take their dogs with them wherever they go. Places where dogs were traditionally not permitted are forced to look the other way because of the negative repercussions associated with denying entry to a service dog.

Last August, disabled veteran Richard Hunter was turned away from a Subway restaurant because of the presence of his service dog. A storm on social media followed.

How can a restaurant know the difference between a real service dog and a fake service dog? They can’t. And that is the heart of the problem.

On the other hand, if a person is found to be faking a service dog – unless they’re in one of those 16 states with written laws on the matter – they face no more than a proverbial slap on the wrist. Still, in those 16 states, the penalty is minor, usually a misdemeanor, and the fees typically range in the area of a few hundred dollars.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely upon the moral fortitude of individuals or an honor system to prevent anyone with the inkling to do so from faking a service dog.

So, what makes fake service dogs such a real problem?

It can be argued that the majority of people passing off their pets as service dogs aren’t doing so with ill intent. Instead, they’re simply trying to spend more time with the dogs they love.

However, those people that fake service dogs don’t consider the ripple effect of their actions.

True, legitimate service dogs are highly trained, incredibly well-mannered, and under the complete control of their handlers at all times whereas fake service dogs are often disruptive, they haven’t had the hundreds of hours of training and socialization required to handle the tasks of a working dog. Likewise, their handlers often lack complete control over their dogs and don’t appropriately handle having their access to public places challenged, as a trained service dog and an experienced handler with full knowledge of rights and responsibilities, as well as laws, would.

As a result, fake service dog teams create unnecessary discrimination toward legitimate teams. A business owner or their staff who has dealt with unruly behavior from a “faker” will immediately pass judgement on a true service dog team, the very minute they walk through the door. This discrimination leads to poor or even unlawful treatment of legitimate service dog teams in a variety of ways, like isolating them in an empty part of a restaurant, being ignored or overlooked by salespeople, following them around a store, etc.

Further, fake service dogs pose a genuine safety hazard not present in true service dogs. While service dogs are predictable, reliable, and trained to remain calm, quiet, and out of the way in a variety of circumstances, a family pet disguised as a service dog is most often not so reliable, making them a threat to both other patrons and to real service dogs that may enter the premises.

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Disabled persons already inevitably deal with some form of bias or discrimination on a regular basis. The recent influx of fake service dog teams has created a culture where business owners and staff, more often than not, are suspicious of all service dog teams. Instead of assuming that most are legitimate and a rare few are fake, the common assumption is that most are fake and very few are real.

What can be done to solve the real problem of fake service dogs?

The solution isn’t entirely clear. While many have suggested the federal government take steps to create an official, legally recognized central registry, this solution could potentially infringe upon the privacy rights of the disabled.

In addition to a central registry, some argue that a specific, centralized training protocol needs to be established for all service dogs to adhere to. That program would include specific tasks that all registered service dogs must perform, like sitting under the table at a restaurant, not reacting to distractions, remaining calm at all times, staying out of the way, properly riding on an airplane, etc. However, since the tasks performed by service dogs vary so greatly from one handler to the next, developing a one-size-fits-all training program is an incredible – if not impossible – undertaking.

And then, there becomes the issue of providing resources for every single disabled person in the country to have access and the ability to become certified by a single, central agency, without creating excessive costs or infringing upon their rights.

There is no question, however, that those found to be misrepresenting their pet as a service dog need to be held accountable and legally reprimanded with stiff penalties that make the risk much greater than the reward. But without legislation, the problem will only escalate in the future.

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In the meantime, more and more people are ordering service dog vests freely on the Internet.

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