Stretching the rules to take pets into grocery stores, amusement parks and restaurants has become so commonplace that online merchants are selling official-looking service animal certificates and vests for as little as $50.
Those wanting to fly with their furry friends can also buy a mental health diagnosis online at those same websites.
The growing practice is insulting and harmful to those who genuinely require a service animal, said Karen Shirk executive director of 4 Paws for Ability that has trained more than 1,000 service dogs for disabled children.
“Faking service dogs is one of the worst things anybody can do,” said Shirk, who founded the Xenia non-profit. “It’s infuriating on so many levels. Just the thought that somebody would — the same as the handicap placards in the cars — take advantage of something that was supposed to make a disabled person’s life easier.”
People get away with it because the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) generally provides that businesses must take at face value a person’s word that an accompanying dog helps an individual overcome a physical barrier or provide warning or allay an episode related to a brain disorder, Shirk said.
In general, businesses can only ask if a service animal is needed because of a disability. Handlers can be told to take animals outside if they create a health hazard or become disruptive.
“When they made the ADA, I believe their intent was to make it as easy as possible for a disabled person to access the community,” Shirk said. “Part of that was saying that store owners and restaurants and any place in public they’re not allowed to ask you even for proof.”
An imposter is often easy to spot because phony service dogs growl at people, bark at other dogs or refuse to take commands, said Donna Sword, president of the Cin-Day Chapter of Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based organization that has a regional training facility in Delaware, Ohio.
A well-trained and handled service dog will stay focused on the job, Sword said.
“These dogs stay on task the entire time,” said Sword, a volunteer puppy trainer for the national organization. “They’re not distracted by wanting to see somebody across the room to be petted or if another service dog is in the room.”
Kurt Feldmann, whose 19-year-old son Konrad has used two service dogs over a decade, has noticed a negative shift in public perception during recent years.
“Over the last four or five years I would say it’s more radically changed,” said Feldmann of Liberty Twp. “People are a little bit more suspicious of service dogs. We go to a lot of different places and we see people with dogs with vests and they are really pretty fraudulent service dogs.”
Konrad’s spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy prohibits use of his arms and legs. Like other true working service animals, his current dog Liza, a yellow Labrador retriever, was raised from birth and rigorously trained to meet the needs of a person with disabilities. Konrad’s mother Kristen went through an intensive two-week “boot camp” to get acclimated to the dog and learn the commands.
Raising and training a service animal can cost as much as $35,000 to $50,000.
Feldmann is concerned those faking it might chip away at his son’s access to public accommodations.
“We have these specially-bred, elite service dogs that have devoted their first two years of their lives and cost tens of thousands of dollars … and we’re looked at in the same light as these imposters,” he said. “Because some people are just buying a vest for a few dollars online and passing them off as service dogs, we’re worried that people who really need assistance dogs face added discrimination.”
Tinge of discrimination
Elizabeth Burns of Beavercreek said her family has felt a tinge of discrimination while entering businesses with her son Jesse, 6, and his service dog Squirt.
“It was very frustrating when we had to explain ourselves. We have it easier because we have a son who is in a power wheelchair and who is non-verbal,” Burns said. “I can’t imagine the people who have children that look normal, if you will. They probably have it way worse than we do.”
Squirt entered the family’s life in September from 4 Paws for Ability and has already been able to detect when Jesse is nearing a seizure, said the boy’s father, Jerry Burns.
“(Squirt) can sense when things are out of whack with Jesse’s body. He starts licking his face, his hands his neck and we know either if he’s not not already feeling well it’s probably not going to be long before he’s having a seizure or migraine,” he said. “That’s helpful to know so he’s not driving his wheelchair.”
The Burns family has also encountered suspect service dogs, like the “horribly behaved” dog that climbed up on a cart to get at food at the grocery store. The owner gave a command that would be contradictory to any trained service dog, Elizabeth said.
“(The owner) told it to ‘sit down’ and sit and down are two different commands,” she said. “Sit means for it to sit and down means for it to lay down on the floor.”
‘We’ve been very lucky’
Crystal Sprowl said her family was treated “like a sideshow” once they were finally seated at a Springfield restaurant after her husband, Stephen, had to explain ADA requirements to the staff. At issue was son Jake’s service dog, Dot, who helps disrupt behaviors associated with the 13-year-old’s autism.
Fortunately, those types of incidents are rare, the Springfield Twp. resident said.
“We’ve been very lucky,” she said. “But I know there have been a lot of families that have issues.”
Dot rides the school bus and attends classes alongside Jake at Possum School, where he is an eighth grader. Jake also plays percussion in the Shawnee High School’s marching band with Dot by his side. Sprowl said the family has received nothing but support from the Clark-Shawnee Local School District.
“Dot goes to every football game, every marching band competition,” Sprowl said. “The kids love her at the high school. They’re great.”
When pigs fly
The rules for flying are looser when it comes to people who wish to be accompanied by emotional support animals, and that has created both complaints and confusion about what is allowed.
In 2014 a pig that a woman in Connecticut carried onto a plane in a duffel bag relieved itself and the stench became too much for passengers. A U.S. Airways crew removed the woman — and pig — for being disruptive.
Pigs are still flying this year, as are turkeys and other feathered creatures. Last month, a duck named Daniel Tuducken Stinkerbutt sported red shoes and a Captain America diaper for a short intra-state flight in North Carolina.
While a 2012 change in the ADA allows only task-trained service dogs and in some cases miniature horses to be service animals, the Air Carrier Access Act continues to allow people to fly with emotional support animals. With some limitations, passengers with a mental health professional’s diagnosis of a recognized mental or emotional disability can bring along cats, household birds and other animals.
“We have concern about passengers who have the ability to claim that these are emotional support animals or service animals, and the ease of getting those credentials to bring these animals onboard,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
A mental health diagnosis can also be purchased online, often through a questionnaire linked from the same sites selling certifications and vests.
Nelson said flight attendants represented by the union are dealing with a growing number of problems as more people board flights with emotional support animals.
“When they are not properly trained to be service animals or emotional support animals this can cause safety problems,” Nelson said. “Those animals have gotten loose, they have been racing all over the cabin. It has disturbed people.”
Once inflight, there’s not much the crew can do within a tight cabin, she said.
A plane bound from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in 2014 was forced to make an emergency landing in Kansas City by a pooping large dog. Passengers reportedly got sick and flight attendants ran out of paper towels trying to clean up three messes left in the aisle.
Flight attendants are not in the business of determining which animals are legitimate so it’s important to have “very clear rules that flight attendants can enforce onboard as the authority in the cabin,” Nelson said.
An advisory working group for the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted public hearings this year on proposed changes in the rules for who can take animals on board.
No consensus was reached, but a department spokeswoman said the hearings “yielded a wealth of information that will greatly benefit the department as it proceeds to draft its proposed new rule on service animals.”
Preying on misinformation
The groups that sell vests and certifications online are not affiliated with any government agency.
“The sole purpose of every one of these registries online is to make money. Not one of them is a non-profit, Shirk said. “There is no official registry for the United States.”
They also prey on misinformation. No official government certification is required for either service animals or emotional support animals.
“These online companies that sell certifications, that itself is fraudulent,” said Sword of Clayton. “Whether they lead people to believe they need these things and people pay for the certification or the people just on their own know they are sneaking something by, I don’t know the difference.”
This news organization sought comment by two online registries claiming to be the largest in the nation. Email and phone calls were not returned.
Feldmann, who says his son’s service dog allows him to be an equal citizen, doesn’t want the hard-fought rights granted by the ADA to be compromised by bad actors.
Konrad cast his first presidential ballot recently at the Butler County Board of Elections.
“Liza was right there,” Feldmann said. “Let’s just say she was a bipartisan success story.”
“I can’t even put a price on that,” he said. “What these dogs do for my son is allow him to function in the world around him and be a part of humanity. And I think humanity is a bit part better with my son participating in it.”
Cox Media Group Washington News Bureau contributed to this report.
Frequently asked questions
Q. What is a service animal?
A. In most cases it’s a dog that, as defined under the ADA, has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Q. What does “do work or perform tasks” mean?
A. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.
Q. Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?
A. No. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Q. If someone’s dog calms them when having an anxiety attack, does this qualify it as a service animal?
A. It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal.
Q. Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?
A. No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.
Q. Are service-animals-in-training considered service animals under the ADA?
A. No. Under the ADA, the dog must already be trained before it can be taken into public places.
Q. What questions can a covered entity’s employees ask to determine if a dog is a service animal?
A. In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
Q. Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?
A. No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
Q. Who is responsible for the care and supervision of a service animal?
A. The handler is responsible for caring for and supervising the service animal, which includes toileting, feeding, and grooming and veterinary care. Covered entities are not obligated to supervise or otherwise care for a service animal.
Q. Can a person bring a service animal with them as they go through a salad bar or other self-service food lines?
A. Yes. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their handlers to and through self-service food lines.
Q. Can hotels assign designated rooms for guests with service animals, out of consideration for other guests?
A. No. A guest with a disability who uses a service animal must be provided the same opportunity to reserve any available room at the hotel as other guests without disabilities. They may not be restricted to “pet-friendly” rooms.
Q. Do commercial airlines have to comply with the ADA?
A. No. The Air Carrier Access Act is the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities in air travel. For information or to file a complaint, contact the U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, at 202-366-2220.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section
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