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The Challenge of Fake Service Dogs

Grads Deni Elliot & Albertaby graduate Deni Elliott

Imagine working your way through an airport, focused on finding your gate. Your guide dog is working well. She dodges rolling suitcases and wandering toddlers. As soon as you smell that distinctive combination of hot dogs and overly sweet cinnamon bun, you know you are close. The TSA agent said, “Turn right at the food court.” You softly command, “Right, right,” and your dog walks on, then turns you smoothly into the next gate area.

Suddenly, a large dark dog snarls, growls, barks and lunges at you and your guide dog. You and your guide dog leap to what you hope is a safe distance. A woman drags her dog away by his pinch collar, yelling at him to stop as he continues to snarl and bark in your direction. “That dog is not suitable for public access,” you fling out to anyone who will listen, voice trembling. You calm yourself as you stroke and praise your guide. “We’re okay,” you remind both of you. “Forward,” you say and you two step back into the waiting area, intent on catching your plane.

Maybe, like me, you report the incident to airport management and to the gate agent. These gatekeepers are charged with ensuring the dogs who increasingly populate ‘no-pet areas’ are truly service dogs mitigating their handler’s disability, as described in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or, in some settings, ensuring that they are emotional support animals, an additional category recognized by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and Fair Housing Act (FHA), but not by ADA.  If your experience is like mine, those gatekeepers will be sympathetic about your being attacked, but will say that their hands are tied and they afraid of being sued if they deny access to anyone.

The Federal Department of Justice, in an attempt to make public access easy for people with disabilities who use guide and service dogs, has inadvertently created a dog-sized loophole in the ADA for anyone callous enough to lie when asked if their pet is a service dog. A quick trip online provides any items unscrupulous owners might want to dress up their pets to look like service dogs. These pet owners claim they are hurting no one.

Ironically, those who suffer most from the problem of fake service dogs are the legitimate guide and service dog handlers who depend on their dogs to mitigate true disability.

Aggressive dogs are the most obvious hazard. Guide and service dogs are trained to work and ignore the chaos around them. But no dog can be adequately trained to defend her handler or herself against aggression. In fact, service and guide dogs are eliminated from most training programs if they show any willingness to fight back. A guide dog bitten or frightened by an aggressive dog may develop psychological wounds that make it impossible for him to continue to work.

Years ago, everyone knew that a dog in harness with rigid handles meant that this was a working dog, guiding someone who was blind or visually impaired. Today, fake service dogs come in all sizes and shapes, as do legitimate service dogs. Now the dog mitigating disability may be a hearing dog, alert dog for diabetes or epilepsy, a dog helping someone with a mobility disability or trained to intervene with symptoms of a handler’s psychiatric illness. The ADA does not require common equipment or a tag that indicates, “This is a legitimate working dog.”

Theatre owners frustrated with the yappy teacup poodle disrupting a performance and the restaurant owner angry that the Jack Russell terrier lifting his leg on a chair leg, have grown cynical about customers claiming that their dogs are service dogs. Though reticent to ask any handler to remove a dog that is not behaving within the bounds of law, they communicate their displeasure at needing to accommodate any team. Even obviously blind customers with completely appropriate Guiding Eyes guide dogs are being asked more frequently if we can prove our dog’s status. Knowing the tough job for gatekeepers determining who is legitimate and who is not, most of us cheerfully show our IDs.

Dogs that threaten, growl, bark or attack people or other dogs or dogs that relieve themselves indoors are not appropriate for public access, regardless of their training or credentials. Managers can and should require those dogs to be removed to protect public safety.  “Emotional support dogs,” while not recognized for general public access under the ADA, are permitted in settings governed by ACAA and FHA. However, a pet owner’s claim that her pet gives her “emotional support,” is not enough for this designation. A legally-allowed emotional support animal is one prescribed by a licensed medical professional for a patient under his or her care. A person who has an emotional support animal in no-pet housing or on public transportation must have proof, on professional letterhead, stipulating that the emotional support animal mitigates symptoms relating to the handler’s mental disorder.

Friends of guide and service dog users can protect public access for legitimate teams by knowing the law and expecting gatekeepers to be accountable to the public for allowing access to unsuitable dogs. Teams should be asked the legally allowed questions, “Is that your service dog? What tasks does he perform for you?”

Supporters of legitimate teams can speak the truth. Say loudly, “That dog is not appropriate for public access,” when it barks, growls, pulls on the leash or acts in other inappropriate ways.

Explain to everyone who will listen that no guide, service or emotional support dog becomes one simply because a pet owner declares it so. Remind the fraudsters that they are breaking federal and state laws by pretending that their pets are service dogs. And, tell them that their true disability, deficiency of character, is clear.  Karma has got to be bad for those who fake disability to avoid paying an airline pet fee.