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Faux Service Dogs

Political candidates should be on notice that my vote can be bought. Anyone who promises to make passing off a pet as a “service dog” a capital offense, preferably with a slow, painful death, is my kind of elected official.

If this seems a little extreme, let me explain. A few basic legal distinctions are necessary first, but I promise to make these quick and painless.

Service animals. As virtually everyone knows, “service animals” are guaranteed access to all public facilities (businesses, public transportation, government buildings, etc.). There are some very narrow exceptions to this, but, for all practical purposes, this is a pretty safe generalization. This includes animals, almost always dogs, that are specially trained to assist with hearing, autism, paraplegia, etc. as well as guide dogs.

Therapy animals. Animals that are trained to provide psychological or physiological therapy to others than their handler are classified as therapy animals. Most often, they visit institutions like hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, or schools. It’s important to note that, despite their training, certification, and their therapeutic value, these animals have a different function and are not covered by the same protections as service animals.

Emotional support animals. While many different types of animals may provide emotional support to their owners, they do not require any training and are explicitly not considered as service animals under the law. Businesses may choose to allow them in their facilities, but they are not required to. In my experience, it seems that when I encounter someone with an animal that provides emotional support, the person honestly believes it is a “service animal.” Innocent as this may be, it is clearly wrong. I’ve lost track of the number of Jack Russell terriers, Pekinese, and other foo foo dogs passed off as service dogs. I’ll spare you the details, but such animals aren’t remotely close to meeting the legal definition of “service animal.”

Recently, a friend proudly announced that he had gotten his psychiatrist to approve his poodle as a service dog. I don’t question for a moment that having the dog provides some therapeutic value. But the therapist should be drawn and quartered in the public square at high noon for not only aiding and abetting this nonsense but, what is worse, directing his patient to a web site where he could acquire gear to put on Fido proclaiming him to be a real “service dog.”

If it seems like I’m overreacting, a nurse who works in a local hospital recently told me that the epidemic of fake service dogs had reached the point that the administration had added a new code to be announced throughout the building when yet another phony had been spotted. Now, in addition to hearing “Code blue on 2,” patients and staff now hear, “FSD (fake service dog) on 2.”

So, why does this matter? Who’s really hurt if someone wants to pass off Precious or Fluffy as a service dog? Historically, laws that are consistently and flagrantly disobeyed lose public support. Several states have already passed legislation intended to restrict animals like this in public spaces. It is largely forgotten today, but it took decades to convince the American public that dogs, properly trained and handled, should be permitted in areas traditionally prohibited to them.

It is my guess, and that’s all it is, that business owners and governmental officials, lacking a clear understanding of the relevant laws and believing litigation vastly more common than it is, err on the side of caution and do nothing. There are, however, several simple things that can be done legally to separate the genuine from the fake.

  1. A business is permitted to ask if the animal is a service animal required by a disability. They may not ask about the nature of the disability, only if one exists.
  1. A business may ask what things the animal has been trained to do. If you’re legally inclined, the relevant sections of the law are (28 CFR Section 35. & 28 CFR Section 36.302(c)(6)).
  1. Contrary to what some disabled people think, you are required to answered these questions. It is what the lawyers call “credible assurance.”
  1. The animal does not have to wear any distinguishing gear, although it very well may.

Now, if only the statutes on fraud were extended to cover the bozos who run websites like “Take Your Dog Anywhere – Make Your Dog a Service Dog.”

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These posts may also be of interest:
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Why Do You Use a Dog

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