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.

Emotional Support Animal

There was a lot of debate surrounding the changes to the ADA in defining a service animal and one of the things that was (and still is) bandied about is the potential for abuse in terms of fake service animals. It’s an issue, though, it’s posts like this one on Tumblr that remind me it’s less of a problem than the more loosely defined emotional support animals (ESA):

5. Dogs make apartment searching hard. Pay $65 and you can register your dog as an “Emotional Support Animal.” No landlord can refuse you.

ESAs are certainly not my area of expertise, but sadly it does seem just as simple as the Tumblr post states to have a pet registered as one. In fact, provided you claim having a disability requiring the use of one you can do so online in a matter of minutes.

However, the facts straight from HUD:

The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating based on disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, and familial status. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and state and local government activities.  Both laws contain provisions which address the use of service or assistance animals by people with disabilities.  While the Fair Housing Act covers nearly all types of housing, some types of housing, such as public housing, are covered by both laws

Specifically, the “Notice on Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-Funded Programs” states:

An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Assistance animals perform many disability-related functions, including but not limited to, guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds, providing protection or rescue assistance, pulling a wheelchair, fetching items, alerting persons to impending seizures, or providing emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support. For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the FHAct nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified. While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.

It further stipulates that in regard to a reasonable accommodation the following must be considered:

(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?

(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

If the answer to either of those is “no” then a “no pets” policy does not need to be changed.

Public access and fair housing are legitimate issues for assistance dog partners and service animal handlers. Cheating the law to your advantage to aid in your apartment search or avoid a pet deposit is not only reprehensible, it also serves to prove the entire reason it is so hard to find accommodating landlords: the majority of pet owners are irresponsible.

Flights of Fantasy

The majority of my incredibly eventful yesterday was spent at the Empire State Book Festival; however, a post about that will be forthcoming at a later time because of an incident that sadly fills my mind. Especially since these tweets were cryptic at best and I don’t want to cause people any unnecessary alarm.

After the Book Festival and a trip to Crossgates to see Source Code, my friends and I decided to visit Flights of Fantasy, one of the local independent bookstores here in the Capital District. I have many fond memories of spending inordinate amounts of time at this particular store; I’ve spent countless dollars on books over the years and endless hours gaming under its roof. And I certainly love that they’re an indie store and am always happy to support such establishments. So, it is with extreme sadness that I say that I have no intention of gracing this store with one single penny of my money nor do I expect to step foot on their premises ever again.

Last night, we arrived as they were setting up for a jazz concert. As we passed by the front counter we were asked if we were there for the concert to which we replied that we had come merely to shop. Nothing was said of that and so we passed through the front room of the store and into one of the other rooms. As I walked through the rows of chairs in the first room we caught the attention of one of the “store cats” who did not seem at all taken by Uschi’s presence. My guide dog was completely professional through this and ignored the cat entirely. The cat, on the other hand, followed us into the next room while vocally alerting all to her displeasure.

In this next room one of the staff members of the store explained to us that the cat has a heart condition and is supposed to be avoiding any type of stress. I immediately apologized for causing her any possible harm by way of my dog’s presence, but was basically told not to worry and that it wasn’t my fault. I walked through the shelves with my friends with the cat trailing behind us still making noises of disapproval. Shortly after she cornered Uschi and hissed and swatted at my dog. Things for me were kind of a frenzy at this point: I know that Uschi jumped in alarm and started to mildly freak out in terror and so I was distracted by calming her and lost track of anything else going on. When I had her settled, the owner had come into the room and was fetching the cat to remove her from the stressful environment lest she cause herself harm. Again, I apologized about the situation and was again basically told it was a non-issue.

Twenty minutes or so elapsed while my friends and I continued to browse through the many bookshelves. I divided my time between comforting my dog, who was still trembling from the cat flipping out on her, and trying to pick my way through potential books to buy. I had finally settled on one when the owner’s husband entered the room. Instinctively I braced myself for the inevitable questioning about whether Uschi was my guide dog and the usual drivel.

Instead, he told me that his wife wished for me to leave because of the distress I was causing the cat. This was said with obvious discomfort and I took note of the fact he wouldn’t look me in the eye. It is possibly because of this or perhaps my own shell-shocked state that I didn’t have a total meltdown and make a huge scene about the entire thing. Instead, I glanced at my friends, placed the book I was holding back on a shelf and calmly walked out the front door.

Initially, I was incredibly hurt and offended by what happened. Obviously, I had given them the opportunity to let me know if my dog’s presence was at all an issue and had someone said as much either of those times I would have respected the cat’s health and my friends and I would have left immediately. We would have come back another time when the cat was not in such a delicate state and I wouldn’t have thought a thing more about this. But as I thought about that I realized that I wasn’t just hurt at what had transpired I was pissed off at the illegal nature of these actions: essentially denying me entry into a PUBLIC BUSINESS because of my service dog.

I’m still quite angry. Though, this is tinged with disgust because I’m left honestly feeling truly ashamed of how much I praised this bookstore over the years and in one fell swoop they left me feeling degraded, as if I were a second-class citizen whose money wasn’t good enough to grace their establishment. I’m not a crier, but I’ll let you know that the whole thing actually reduced me to tears.

To conclude, I just want to say that I am not posting this to stand on a soapbox of any kind. I’m not trying to spread bad publicity or wage war on the store; I just feel it is important to share this experience because what happened was not only incredibly hurtful but entirely wrong. So, take from it what you will; I’ve said my peace.

ID Card — A First

Yesterday, my mother, half-brother and I went out to a local Chinese restaurant to celebrate Li’l Bro’s birthday and I was quite shocked when the owner came over to me asking for my “dog card.” Through some amazing stroke of luck foresight, I had taken the card out of the depths of my wallet and stuck it in my jacket pocket back at home. The woman took one quick glance at it, thanked me and walked off, leaving me sitting there quite shocked at the entire set of events.

In the eight years I had worked Dolly I had never once been asked for any form of ID to prove she was a guide dog. Granted, I can count on one hand the number of access issues we had had over the years, but even of those her status as a guide dog was never contested. Ironically, it’s probably a good thing I was never asked to produce the card GEB had made for me as I’d lost it sometime rather soon after training what with all the moving a college student does.

Admittedly I’m not an expert on the intricacies of access laws, but I didn’t think it was legal to require that one produced “certification” of a service animal’s status. Then again, this was told to me years ago and I’m certainly not saying I recall all the chatter I’d heard about the subject correctly nor that it wouldn’t have changed. Either way, I’m quite glad I thought to bring my card with me and more that the restaurant owner didn’t make a big fuss about Yara.