As a dog lover and a parent of a child with a special need, this is a story that brings disappointment to mind. Service dogs are a necessary partner for many with a special need. I have read about this trend of dog owners identifying their dog as a "service dog" when they are actually not. Come on people. A service dog belongs at it's owner's side. I realize we all want to bring our dogs with us everywhere we go. Instead of "breaking the rules" and calling your dog a service dog when he is actually not, let's advocate for changing the rules to allow our beloved pets to go everywhere with us. Thoughts?
Fake service dogs provoke resentment, possible rule changes
Macy and Milo, blond Labs with constantly wagging tails, look and goof off like the other pooches at the dog park.
Their owner, 20-year-old college student Shoshana Rappaport, looks like the other doting dog moms, telling her dogs to knock it off when they play too rough and smothering them with hugs when they are worn out.
But Macy and Milo are not like the other dogs at the dog park. When Rappaport turns her head to the right and her neon orange hearing aid is visible, it is obvious that she also is not like the other dog moms at the park.
Macy and Milo are service dogs. They have been trained to alert Rappaport, who is profoundly deaf and also has vertigo, to vital sounds that many of us take for granted — car horns, door bells or a stranger approaching from behind. Shoshana also uses the dogs to support, stabilize and right her during vertigo episodes.
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Macy and Milo can go wherever Rappaport goes — including restaurants, hotels, taxicabs and theaters. Also because of the ADA, Rappaport doesn’t have to prove she is disabled — a provision in the law designed to protect the privacy of people with disabilities and to prevent discrimination.
In fact, all any dog owner needs to do to be eligible for access privileges guaranteed under the ADA is to say that the dog is a service dog. And that has led some dog owners who do not have disabilities and whose dogs are not service dogs to use the ADA as a loophole to take their pets everywhere they go.
As more dogs are being trained to assist people whose disabilities are not readily apparent, such as deafness, post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, fake service dogs are seen more in public places, said John Ensminger, a New York attorney and author of the books “Service Dogs in America” and “Police and Military Dogs.”
“I think it’s definitely increasing,” said Ensminger, who said he is receiving more requests for interviews and more reports of fake dogs on his blog, The Dog Law Reporter. Among the most recent reports, show dogs being passed off as emotional support dogs, he said.
The phenomenon can infuriate people with real disabilities who rely on their highly trained dogs to lead as normal and active a life as possible.
“For everybody that needs a service dog, it’s a slap in their face for somebody to go on-line and get a service dog vest so they can go into a store or a restaurant with their dog,” said Joe Rainey, a Marine who was wounded in Vietnam.
Rainey, of Greenacres, relies on his service dog, Tanker, who has had mobility and stability training to assist Rainey when he is unsteady or cannot get up. “I am a Marine and it’s like someone pretending to be a Marine who was wounded while serving their country.”
The problem stems in part from the protections for the disabled set up under ADA. Businesses can ask only two questions when a dog enters their establishment: Is your dog a service dog? What tasks has the dog been trained to perform?
Businesses cannot require special identification for the dog or ask about the person’s disability. It does not matter whether the dog is wearing a service-dog vest or the owner’s disability is visible.
“A business person is very limited in what they can do when someone declares they have a service animal,” said Geoff Luebkemann, vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The average restaurant owner or hotelier just isn’t versed in this and they are concerned they will be the subject of an ADA lawsuit.”
Other laws supersede the ADA when it comes to air travel and housing, but the service-dog issue is posing special problems for airlines, especially those that no longer allow pets in the cargo hold.
Many passengers falsely believe that the ADA covers air travel and are surprised to learn they must abide by the stricter rules of the Air Carrier Access Act if they want to fly with their dog. Unlike the ADA, the Air Carrier Access Act allows airlines to require passengers with emotional support and psychiatric service dogs to prove they are disabled and that their dog is trained to assist them.
Many airlines require a letter on the letterhead of a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker stating that the passenger has a medically recognized mental or emotional disability and is under the professional’s care. The letter must be dated within one year of the flight and also include the state in which the professional is licensed.
“People are going to be hard pressed to get psychologists and psychiatrists to sign letters,” Ensminger said. “I think this is an area where we are going to see a lot of friction.”
Nevertheless, there are enough passengers trying to board with emotional support and psychiatric service dogs — which fly in the cabin for free — that agents at ticket counters have been provided written guidelines on the law and the U.S. Department of Transportation has opened up rule-making for changes in rules on allowing such dogs on planes.
Ensminger owns a therapy dog, which is trained to go to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions to comfort and offer companionship. Therapy dogs are not protected by the ADA or the Air Carriers Act and although he knows he could pass her off as a service dog and fly with her to his winter home in Arizona, he does not. Instead, he drives the 2,600 miles.
“To be honest, I’ve been tempted,” Ensminger said. “But she is a therapy dog, not a service dog.”
When it comes to allowing service animals in condos and apartments with no-pet or weight-limit rules, the ADA is again trumped by another federal law — the Fair Housing Act.
Unlike the ADA, which defines dogs and occasionally miniature horses as service animals, the FHA is broader and protects other species, such as cats and birds.
Just as restaurants and airlines are seeing more unqualified service dogs, landlords and condo associations say tenants are seeking exceptions for their pets under the FHA.
“The trend has gone up and down since this service dog issue first arose,” said West Palm Beach attorney John Sheppard, who specializes in condominium and homeowner association litigation. “When it initially came up, there was a fairly high standard the owner had to meet to keep the dog.”
Those standards loosened and “if they could show a doctor’s prescription saying they needed a dog for some reason, that was enough to pass muster,” Sheppard said. The pendulum is swinging back and now condominium associations can ask specific questions about the disability and how the animal assists, Sheppard said.
Still, he said, “There are people who come in and have a dog and they say, ‘It’s my sister’s dog. I’m just watching it.’ Then they come out and say they have a disability.”
Is there a solution?
Corey Hudson, secretary of Assistance Dogs International, which has a well-known accreditation program that sets minimum standards for behavior and training, suggests some form of government-sanctioned certification for service dogs.
“We all get drivers’ licenses after somebody impartially figures out that you are capable of driving,” Hudson said.
Ensminger sees problems with that approach. Who will set those standards and how much will credentials cost? Professionally trained service dogs can cost more than $20,000. Each dog is individually trained to meet the specific needs of its owner’s disabilities. Many people with disabilities are on limited budgets and train their dogs themselves.
“What I’m afraid of is that if the government doesn’t want to get in the business and turns it over to private entities, that will mean people will essentially have to pay a significant amount of money to some organization that will bless their service dog,” Ensminger said. “I see that as a big problem.”
Rappaport, who herself trained Macy and Milo, has her own solution: confronting pet owners and businesses when she encounters misbehaving dogs wearing service dog vests.
“These people should be grateful they don’t have a disability,” Rappaport said. “Do they think we want to be disabled so we can take our dogs anywhere? Don’t they realize we would trade our service dogs to get rid of our disabilities?”
Service dog laws
Three federal laws grant service dogs special privileges:
Americans with Disabilities Act: Gives service dogs access to public places, such as restaurants, stores and offices. Owner may not be questioned about disability but may be asked about the tasks the dog performs. Harnesses or leashes must be worn at all times unless it interferes with the dog’s work.
Air Carrier Act: Enables service dogs to fly in cabin of airplane. Passengers with emotional support or psychiatric service dogs may be asked to provide proof of disability and treatment from mental health professional.
Fair Housing Act: Allows people with disabilities to keep emotional-support animals, even when landlord’s or association’s policy prohibits pets. Allows limited questioning about disability and animal support.
Types of support animals
Federal laws give access privileges to service dogs, including guide and hearing dogs. Therapy dogs and emotional support animals can be denied access to public places, airplanes and housing.
Guide dogs: Highly disciplined and trained service dogs. Assist blind and visually impaired people by avoiding obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, and negotiating traffic.
Hearing dogs: Service dogs trained to alert the deaf and hard of hearing to common sounds, such as a doorbell, telephone, baby crying or smoke alarm.
Service dogs: Provide assistance unrelated to vision or hearing disabilities. Individually trained to meet unique physical, medical or psychiatric needs of owner.
Therapy dogs: Provide comfort and companionship to people in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions. To encourage petting and avoid confusion with service dogs, often do not wear vests seen on service dogs.
Emotional support animal: Domesticated animals — not necessarily dogs — that provide therapeutic companionship and affection. No training required beyond that of a pet.