Abuse of the Service Dog Title

Fun Paw Care receives daily calls to our Los Angeles dog training office on how one can get their beloved, untrained, ill-mannered pet (not a working animal) a service dog certification/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 ill-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 one 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 To Tell If I Qualify For A Service Dog?

There is no service dog certification, so how can we stop people from abusing the service dog system? 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 in Los Angeles and may result in prosecution, fines, jail time and/or loss of future benefits, but unethical and harmful. 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 and civil penalties for people and companies who deny or interfere with the accommodation of a disabled person accompanied by a service animal, to my knowledge, other states laws such as in Florida, does not provide any penalty for people who fraudulently seek accommodation through the use of a pet falsely labeled as a service dog.  UPDATE: As of 2015 passing your pet dog off as a service dog or you as a service dog trainer, has real legal consequences such as: a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to 60 days or a fine not to exceed $500 in addition to 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities in the state of Florida. However, it will be important to monitor how these laws are enforced.

Service Dog Training Miami

Service Dog Problems and Solutions

Why is there no national/international service dog certification? 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 areas, ambiguity, people taking advantage of the system and lack of government oversight and prosecutorial ability.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Rights Division, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states:

However, these 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).

How To Fly With Your Service Dog

Flying with your dog 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 of the above situations for living and flying with your dog, 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 morals of an individual to behave in a civilized manner. It is important to remember that the definition of a service dog ″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 animals more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office

What would help communities are stronger enforcement of the laws already in place. In addition, the community would benefit from clearer, more concise, consolidated laws from multiple agencies, and reforms that will clearly define these laws to the public, businesses, condominiums and coops boards. These laws should be uniform, and 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 (non-reactive), under complete control, spayed and neutered 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 parents from other untrained, not well-behaved dogs or pet parents. The AKC (American Kennel Club), or puppy mills, whom we do not support offers their CGC designation that helps to evaluate the most minimum, basic training and behavior abilities of a working animal or pet and the responsibility level of the pet parent. 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. One scenario may look like this: A parent and their dog may first attempt to earn a CGC title, if they both passed that test they might then attempt to train the dog to the level of a therapy dog, and if the dog succeeded in that, the dog might 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 the 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 $10,000 and up and may take up to two years of intensive daily socialization and training by a skilled, certified dog training professional (CPDT) and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), to become a service dog. It is important to choose your service dog company wisely as many are still teaching outdated, nonsensical traditional dominance dog training methods. Many service dogs are 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 person’s disability
  • Is very well behaved and mannered in all public areas
  • Is spayed or neutered
  • Is not a direct threat to the health and safety of others
  • Must be house trained
  • 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 dog’s health and well being

A person who fails to properly clean up after their service dog (barring people that are sight impaired or where a disability prevents them from doing so) 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).

How to Improve Service Dog Laws

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Discussing people’s disabilities, 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 are some ideas for improvement:

  • Enforceable clear, concise federal laws for business owners and the public
  • Public service announcement campaigns to better educate each community
  • 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 a person with a disability
  • Enforceable, tangible actions for fraudulent impersonators who are not disabled, trying to take advantage of the system who take their personal pets with them where they are clearly prohibited from doing so

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