Abuse of The Service Dog Title

Abuse of the Service Dog Title


Fun Paw Care receives daily calls to our Miami dog training location on how one can get their beloved, untrained, ill-mannered pet (not a working animal) a service dog designation. When I ask them what disability they would like the service dog to mitigate or help them with, the answer is most often, “I don’t have any disability.” This makes one wonder, where are people’s moral compass and ethics? With every abuse of the system, real legitimate service dogs and people with disabilities are delegitimized and their lives are made far more difficult.

Business owners become more skeptical of real service dogs and people with disabilities when dogs that are un-mannered, untrained and clearly not service animals, come strolling into their restaurant, movie theater, retail establishment, apartment building…etc. Business owners are confused and don’t know if a specific type of situation or another is legal or allowed and if they must let this or that person with their dog into their establishment. What lends to this skepticism is the systemic abuse of the service dog title by unscrupulous individuals.

How will these abuses get stopped? Trying to pass off a dog that isn’t actually trained as a service dog, or faking a disability to bring your pet with you is not only illegal and may result in prosecution, fines, jail time and/or loss of future benefits, but unethical and wrong. And, although many states have begun taking steps to prosecute those who falsely claim their pets as service animals with fines and jail time, the reality is that prosecution rarely occurs. Although there are criminal penalties for people and companies who deny or interfere with the accommodation of a disabled person accompanied by a service animal, to my knowledge, Florida law does not provide any penalty for people who fraudulently seek accommodation through the use of a pet falsely labeled as a service dog.

Service Dog Problems and Solutions

When you have a government with several regulatory agencies all involved with the oversight of working dogs and dogs with jobs, regarding different rules and regulations for each, the laws get confusing to business owners and the public. In diverse areas such as apartment complexes, airplanes, and retail establishments there is a lot of gray area, ambiguity, people taking advantage of the system and lack of government oversight and prosecutorial ability. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) title I (employment), Title II (state and local government services) and title III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) do not oversee every public and private area that a person may live, travel or patron. For example, when seeking to live with your dog, an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is protected under the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) laws. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recent amendments to its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations do not affect reasonable accommodation requests under the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 (Section 504). When looking to fly with your dog, that is enforced by the United States Department of Transportation’s, Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), Title 49, Section 41705 of the U.S. Code(14 CFR Part 382), but in both situations a doctor’s letter (mental health professional) will be required, annually, documenting the need for this animal with regards to your mental health disability. Furthermore, a government agency/agencies with little bite, to enforce the laws and with little penalty for impersonating or illegally posing as a disabled person with a service dog, establishes that there is little incentive other than altruism, ethics and the moral compass of an individual to behave in a civilized manner. It is important to remember that the definition of a service dog 1″does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.”

Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office

What a community needs is stronger enforcement of the laws already in place. In addition the community needs clearer, more concise, consolidated laws from multiple agencies, and reforms that will clearly define laws to the public, businesses and to condominiums and coops boards. These laws need to be uniform, and should be enforced with clear definable consequences across the board. Ideally, laws and regulations would be made and enforced on the federal level to maintain uniformity and to encompass all citizens and not on the individual municipality or state level.

How to Tell a Service Dog from a Fraud

Defined rules for allowing a disabled person to enter a business with their working animal are somewhat clearer than the actual dog training requirements needed to become a working animal. Since there are limits to what a business may ask a person with a service dog {(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?} and limits on ascertaining whether that person is trying to game the system or not, it would be helpful for business owners to recognize by basic obedience, manners, temperament and behavior to assess whether a dog is someone’s pet or a true working animal. Even if a working animal is trained to detect low insulin levels in their diabetic disabled guardian, they still should meet the very minimum Canine Good Citizen (CGC) standards and should be extremely well behaved, friendly to all dogs and people, under complete control and very well mannered. Any lapses in these areas are a clear red flag that this is not a service dog.

There are many organizations that offer some sort of grading and training system to separate great dog citizens and responsible dog owners from other untrained, not well behaved dogs or pet owners. The AKC (American Kennel Club) offers their CGC designation (which Fun Paw Care is an official designated evaluator for) that helps to judge the most minimum, basic training and behavior abilities of a working animal or pet and the responsibility level of the pet owner. In the “hierarchy” of becoming a service dog, therapy dog, ESA or any working assistance dog, behavior, temperament and training are of the utmost importance. An owner and their dog may first attempt to earn a CGC title, if they both passed that test they would then attempt to become a therapy dog team (or trained to that level), and if they succeeded in that, the dog would have a chance at becoming a bonafide service dog trained to mitigate an individuals disability/s.

Becoming a therapy (it is important to note that therapy dogs have no legal protection under federal law) or service dog is not easy! It requires a lot of training, time, dedication and often times, money. Many service dogs start at $20,000 and up and may take up to two years of intensive daily socialization and training by a skilled, certified dog training professional (CPDT) to become a service dog. Service dogs are typically born, bred and raised by a professional service dog training company that has decades of professional experience in training, and breeding only the most selective lineages to mitigate temperament issues and to then train them to help a person with a specific disability. It is very difficult to become a  service dog and most dogs that train to be service dogs do not end up achieving that goal. It is analogous to the rigors of becoming a professional athlete and all of the training and hard work that one puts into that endeavor while only a small fraction prove their ability and skill to perform at the highest levels of competition. At the very least, before a dog or guardian ever dreams of becoming a therapy dog team or buying/having a service dog professionally trained, the dog’s temperament and behavior must be spectacular. This means that a service dog implicitly or explicitly:

  • Gets along with all dogs and people, not some dogs, not only neutered or spayed dogs, but all dogs and all people
  • Is specifically trained to mitigate a persons disability
  • Is very well behaved and mannered in all public areas
  • Is not a direct threat to the health and safety of others
  • Must be housebroken
  • Must be under control “Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls”

and the service dog guardian implicitly or explicitly is:

  • Responsible for cleaning up after their dog
  • Responsible for maintaining control of their dog
  • Responsible for taking care of their dogs health and well being

A person who fails to properly clean up after their service dog (barring people that are sight impaired) or if the dog’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others would be grounds for removal from the premises. In addition it is often the case that service dog frauds have a dog that is unaltered (not neutered or spayed).

Discussing people’s disabilities and questioning and detecting service dog impersonators is a sensitive subject, but without an open dialogue nothing will be accomplished. Many improvements could and should be made. Here is a list of possible ideas for improvement:

  • Enforceable clear, concise federal laws for business owners and the public
  • Public service announcement campaigns to better educate everyone
  • Licensing – Clear defined conditions of behavior, temperament and training that working dogs must pass and show proof of in order to be a working/service dog
  • Consolidation of government agencies with regard to working animals, emotional support animals and therapy dogs
  • Enforceable, tangible actions for noncompliant business owners who discriminate against any legitimate working dog and/or disabled person
  • Enforceable, tangible actions for fraudulent impersonators who are not disabled trying to cheat the system, disabled people and dogs, who take their personal pets with them where they are clearly prohibited

As Scott Hamilton poetically stated, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”  Please share your ideas and thoughts about the subject.

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1 http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

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