Fake Service Animals Aren’t the Problem!

It seems the one issue I can’t escape from lately is that of fake service animals. My social media feeds are littered with posts about fake service dogs being caught by the authorities, pleas for legislation to counter the abuse of public access, or warnings on how to potentially spot a fake service dog. Off the Internet, I’ve overheard conversations from family, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers on the topic. The one glaring thing with all this outrage is that its entirely misplaced.

Now here me out, okay? I get it. The idea of someone parading their pet around eschewing the law is immoral, reprehensible, and arrogant. I’m sure nearly every pet owner would like nothing less than to never have to leave their companion home alone. Even when they understand the vast difference between a pet and a trained service animal, people will still lament their jealousy over my guide dog accompanying me while their pet is home. Sometimes they’ll even remark how they’re sure that same pet would be just as well behaved. Regardless of the validity of such a claim, they still aren’t afforded that right.

I am not, however, in the least bit bothered by the “fakers.” First, because the law is on my side. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” This sounds really broad and there is a reason for it. Most service animals that you’re aware of are quite visibly recognizable either by their working attire or their partner’s disability. However, there are many service animals utilized for “invisible disabilities” or those that you can’t determine just from casual observation. There are dogs trained to detect diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, for instance. Since the United States has very strict laws about medical privacy, and working with a service animal does not supersede that right, the broad definition is a necessity. Of course, in my experience, considering the exposure you receive by the very nature of working with a service animal, handlers tend to be more easygoing about answering questions about their disability.

Possibly more to the point, the second reason fake service animals don’t particular faze me is that their merely being in the public is not doing me a disservice. Sure, I don’t want them there and it can be infuriating to witness someone breaking the law without any consequences. But if they’re “faking” the job of being a service animal properly then they aren’t misrepresenting me as a handler nor are they actively interfering with my guide dog’s ability to do her job.

The law is also on my side if that fake service animal isn’t behaving because it has provisions for misbehaving service animals. And yes, sometimes service animals misbehave. It’s easy to assume this is because the animal wasn’t trained properly, but the truth is any number of reasons could be the cause of misbehavior. Service animals are not furry robots; they’re living beings who have off days, get overwhelmed, or just act out. Whatever the reason may be, a misbehaving service animal is unacceptable. Specifically, the law states “that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times” and when this is not the case “and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.”

After nearly twenty years of working with a service animal, I can say with certainty that awareness has grown exponentially about public access rights. However, more often than not while a proprietor may understand that service animals have to be allowed into their establishment they are not aware of their rights under the law. I’m of the belief that this is at least partly due to the paranoia of litigation that pervades, well, everything. Nevertheless, this is where your outrage should be focused: educating everyone about the law!

What we don’t need is more legislation to curb the supposed rampant fake service animals. Yes, there are pros and cons to a lot of potential ways to combat the abuse of the laws as they are presently written. I’m personally on the fence about many of them, but the big sticking point for me and many handlers here in the States is the issue of professional training. Presently, the law affords a handler freedom to choose between any trainer or program in order to obtain a service animal. This includes the right to train one’s own service animal. While all of my guide dogs have come from schools dedicated to training guide dogs and I personally anticipate that I will always utilize such services, every handler is different. Some relish the structure a program might offer, while others prefer the flexibility of their own training methods. Also, while there are many types of training programs, there are those who are unable to get the services they need from any of them.

In short, service animal handlers are not any more above the law than the fake ones. If you witness a handler not doing their job and/or their partner is causing a disruption in public, I urge you to call them out on it! Focus your energy on educating everyone about the law rather than wasting your time trying to defeat the very concept of those who might break it.

Service Dogs and Public Access

I don’t often cross-post things, but I recently replied to a Tumblr “rant” about service dogs in restaurants and I really wanted to share it here. Plus, it’s International Assistance Dog Week!

The original post, titled “A disservice to service dogs” begins:

Look, I get it. People around here love their dogs, more than children it seems. But do you know what? I do not enjoy dining where your furry friends have been joining you at the table. I mean it’s different if they’re chilling on the ground in the patio being well behaved, that’s different.

Just the other day I answered an ask that is very appropriate to this poster’s feelings about dogs in restaurants. It was about the time I got thrown out of a liquor store because, essentially, the owner didn’t want a dog in his shop despite my rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As I noted in my response on Tumblr, the personal feelings of whether or not a service dog should be in a public place are entirely irrelevant. In my original reply, I used the comparison example of having to share space on public transportation with others who perhaps don’t bathe themselves well enough. Unfortunately, I have to deal with it because they have just as much right to occupy space on a CDTA bus as I do.

The post continues:

Just the other day I was a popular San Clemente restaurant where dogs aren’t allowed, and all of a sudden I hear barking from several tables away! “That’s weird” we thought. The barking continued. We complained to the hostess. But because the dog had a “service dog” tag, they said they couldn’t do anything about it. First off, I could put a raccoon on a leash and it would be better trained than this dog. Second, what a tiny yorkie going to do for you? I  kinda get the idea of an emotional support animal but on a cool morning you could probably take your buddy out to the car if it’s acting up.

The 2010 revision of the ADA included a new definition for “service animals” and it is very clear on public access rights. Service animals are permitted wherever the public is and that includes inside restaurants. However, it is expected that the animal be under control of the handler at all times. Anyone who has ever eaten with me at a restaurant knows that my absolute favorite thing is when we get up to leave and I recall my guide dog from under the table to the surprise of staff and patrons. Why? Because that’s exactly what should happen; it proves she was doing her job the whole time and remained entirely unnoticed by everyone but me.

The service dog referenced was obviously not behaving properly and was causing a disruption to the other patrons. The hostess was incorrect in saying that the staff had to ignore the issues because it was a service dog and in fact they could and should have requested the handler leave.1

The rant continues:

Who am I kidding here; you and I both know this was no service dog. For just 79 dollars you can register any animal as a service animal and get to take your buddy anywhere you want, and those mean people who hate dogs can’t do anything about it. If you don’t want to “register” your dog, you can just buy a service dog ID on Amazon for $15.  It’s stuff like this that gives real service animals a bad name. This is what’s going to get the government to regulate service animals, making life difficult for people who really need them.  Knock it off people.

Actually, what makes it difficult for service animal handlers is misinformation about the law. There is no mandatory registration! And there is also no legal need to have an ID or other certification that your partner is in fact a service animal. Yes, that opens the door for people to waltz fake service animals through the doors of any public place, but if that dog is behaving itself like a real service animal then it’s hardly causing an issue for future handlers.

Additionally, there are many types of disabilities that are not readily apparent to the casual observer. Even as a blind person, which you might think would be terribly obvious to the public, I am constantly queried about what my guide dog does and how she specifically aids me. Likewise there are also many different tasks that service dogs perform. Perhaps this dog was trained to alert to an epileptic seizure or diabetic shock.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was a fake service dog. It’s honestly difficult to prove. And the law is fairly specific as to what is considered an acceptable line of questioning. However, that said, in my personal experience as a handler I find we’re generally pretty tolerant of being asked about our partners. If you aren’t rude or accusatory, you’ll likely have similar results.

  1. The law also stipulates that in such cases, the same goods and services should be provided in the absence of the service animal.

Department of Justice Proposes Vast Changes in ADA

Recently, the DOJ proposed some rather alarming revisions to Titles II and III of the Americans With Disabilities Act. These changes include:

  • A new definition for service animals;
  • A significant weakening of the readily achievable barrier removal requirement for public accommodations;
  • A significant reduction of elements required to be accessible in state and local government facilities;
  • An exemption for all existing facilities from the new recreation and playground rules;
  • And many others!

IAADP as an organization has already made an official comment regarding the new service animal definition, emphasizing that the following changes be made:

  1. Eliminate the phrase “providing minimal protection” from the definition of service animal;
  2. Eliminate the phrase “do work” from the definition because it is redundant and the example of work given in the NPRM, grounding, undermines the Department’s goal of maintaining a clear distinction between specially trained service animals and those animals whose mere presence can provide emotional support, companionship or therapeutic benefits.
  3. Limit the use of other species only to animals which can be trained to meet the same standards for behavior and training that assistance dogs must meet to qualify for public access.
  4. Avoid placing a size or weight limit on common domestic animals such as assistance dogs.

Further information from IAADP can be found here.

These changes in the ADA, especially the service animal definition, heavily impact the disabled community and I urge everyone to please take the time to add your comments to IAADP’s official comments and/or add to the draft comments from Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).

Please understand that even though these organizations (and others like them) have made comments that is imperative that DOJ receive your individual comments. We want to flood them with comments and we need the individual’s voice just as much as any large, faceless organization.