Abuse of the Service Dog Title

(Updated 2020)

Can I travel with my Emotional Support Dog?

On December 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it is revising its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulation on the transportation of service animals. What does this mean for parents with emotional support dogs or other animals?

First, it is important to state that the new rules only apply to travel and not to housing. So you are still able to live with your dog if they are an emotional support dog in no-pet apartments and housing, in most cases.

However, in 30 days from this ruling, you are no longer able to travel with your dog (or any other animal) as an emotional support dog. The airlines are not obligated by law to accept your emotional support dog for flying, and they won’t.

The emotional support animal (ESA) ruling states only service dogs and not emotional support animals will be allowed as passengers on the plane.

However, regardless of what a person calls their dog or the certificate, or doctor’s letter that they possess, the only thing that matters is your dog’s behavior.

It doesn’t matter what you call your dog, if your dog’s behavior is not impeccable and indicative of a highly trained service dog, any business can, and will ask you to leave or won’t allow you to enter.

Can My Untrained Dog Be A Service Dog?

Fun Paw Care receives daily calls to our Los Angeles dog training office asking how someone can get their untrained, poorly behaved pet a service dog certification. When I ask them what disability they would like the service dog task trained to help them, the answer is most often, “I don’t have a disability, I just want a service dog certificate to travel with my dog.”

With every abuse of the service dog title, real legitimate service dogs and people with disabilities are delegitimized, and their lives are made even more difficult than they already are.

Another consequence of faking a service dog certification is that business owners become more skeptical of real service dogs. People who try to fake a service dog, generally have an untrained dog that is ill-mannered, untrained, and that you can clearly tell is not a service animal. Business owners become frustrated and confused and don’t know the laws, what a  service dog is or if they must legally allow a fake service dog into their establishment.

Service dog training takes hundreds of hours and costs thousands of dollars (most of the time 10’s of thousands of dollars).  What makes it even more difficult is that many dogs are not cut out to be service dogs. They could be too friendly, social, fearful, reactive, or easily aroused to name a few.

What is the Legal (Not Medical) Term for “Disability” According to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)?

The definition of a disability under the ADA is, “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity…”

What’s a major life activity?  Although the courts have interpreted, “major life activity” in different ways, the ADA states examples such as “are breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working.” In addition, other government regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, try to clarify what a major life activity is under the ADA. This is important because being many people call us stating they need a service dog because they have stress or a headache. However, those do not constitute disabilities under the ADA.

How To Tell If I Qualify For A Service Dog?

Besides the legal definitions above, there is no need for a service dog certification. As cheap and easy as it is to purchase a service dog certification, it is illegal to try and pass off a pet dog that isn’t actually trained as a service dog. 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 businesses who deny or interfere with the accommodation of a disabled person accompanied by a service animal, it is rarer still to hear about a penalty being levied for a person who fraudulently seeks accommodation through the use of a pet fakely labeled as a service dog.

As you can probably see, illegally passing your pet dog off as a service dog or you as a service dog trainer, has real legal consequences in the state of Florida 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. However, it will be important to monitor how these laws are enforced in Los Angeles and in all states.

Service Dog Problems And Solutions

Why is there no mandatory national service dog certification? When a government with several regulatory agencies are all involved with the oversight of working dogs, all with different rules and regulations, 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.

For example, 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 to, or patron. For example, when seeking to live with your dog:

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) otherwise known as an emotional support dog, 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) 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).

Or you can live with your service dog and be covered by the ADA.

Service Dog Certification

Next to emotional support dog certification (ESA), and therapy fog certification, service dog certification is by far the most common request we get from parents wanting to get their dog certified as a service dog.

Here’s the thing, there is no legal obligation or law that states that a person has to have a certification or certificate for their service dog.

In addition, a parent doesn’t have to have an emotional support dog certification or any other type of certification. It’s all bogus certifications that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Many businesses, unfortunately, insinuate, implying, and lead people to believe that a service dog certification or certificate means something or is necessary. It isn’t.

Service dog certification or emotional support dog certification are not mandatory or necessary to have according to all federal laws. And since federal laws supersede local laws regarding ADA and service dog regulation, even if there were some local laws or businesses asking for proof of service dog certification, it would not be legal or enforceable. Moving on…

How To Get Service Dog Certifications And Emotional Support Dog Certifications?

Through hundreds of hours of training. Or just .buy one online. We provide service dog certification and emotional support dog certification for clients who take the time to train their dogs with Fun Paw Care and who have put in the dedication, and hard work to make sure their dog is a task trained service dog or behaved appropriately to become an emotional support animal.

Why does Fun Paw Care provide certifications when there are no laws stating an ESA certification or service animal certification is necessary?

For a few reasons.

  • I still recommend that a dog wear a service dog vest, patch, or even furnish a service animal certification to a business or police officer to make a person’s life easier.

Life is tough enough for people with disabilities, any path to make life easier I am all for. If someone has chores to do and just wants to get on with their day it can be a difficult task to educate every single person in every single business all day, every day about why their service dog is legally allowed to be in a location where no dogs are allowed. A service dog vest or patch helps make a disabled person’s life much easier.

I advocate that people with disabilities, take the opportunity to educate businesses and people about what they can and can’t ask a person with a service dog and to educate businesses about what are legal and illegal questions to ask a person with a service dog.  But no one wants to have to educate people 100% of the time.

  • While educating an ignorant employee about service dog laws, one can still placate an employee with a service dog certificate if that makes life easier for the person with a disability.
  • It helps both parties. A person with a disability gets to help a business learn about service dog laws for the next time they see them or any other person with a service dog. The service dog certificate may also ameliorate businesses’ immediate concerns.
  • An employee is concerned about losing their job when allowing a dog to enter a no dog establishment and wants some type of “proof” that they can blame/point to if they get into trouble down the road from a complaining patron or if they get questioned by their employer/boss. A service dog certification offers that.

Although unnecessary, Service dog patches and vests also help in other ways.

  • Service dog vests, leashes, and patches may help keep people at bay while you are out on the street in public with your working dog, while your dog is service dog training, or when you don’t want people approaching you. Service dog vests, patches, and dog leashes may stop the robotic automatic process of people coming over to pet your dog without asking. Or it might stop a person from asking to begin with.
  • Service dog vests and patches give a parent more space and insulation to keep some people and dogs away. It may also inform ignorant businesses or government workers that don’t know the laws or that don’t want to bother a person who has a dog with a service dog vest on.

Just because there are no laws stipulating the necessity for a service dog certification or emotional support animal certification, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to have your dog wear one or to carry a certification with you when someone asks.

Many homeowner associations, landlords, and rental apartments do not understand or know service dog laws. Although professional service dog training is not mandatory to train your service dog, professional training would help very much to fly with your dog or get your service dog to live with you if you had a professional service dog trainer or company issues you a certificate upon your dog’s completion of their training.

This shows a parent took the responsibility and underwent hundreds of hours of service dog training and puppy rearing, public access training, socialization, temperament testing, personality testing, and the many other areas analyzed when choosing and certifying a service dog.

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 for mental health disabilities such as PTSD, clinical depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, agoraphobia, mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, etc. a doctor’s letter (mental health professional) will be required, annually, documenting the need for this animal with regards to your mental health disability for both living and flying with a service dog.

One major problem with fake service dogs is that government 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

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 emotional support dog and therapy dog standards and should be extremely well behaved, friendly to all dogs and people (non-reactive), under complete control, spayed and neutered (over a certain age depending on breed) 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)/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 dog team (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 oftentimes, 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 (over a certain age depending on breed)
  • 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

Service Dog Training Miami Service Dog Training Miami

First, without regulation in dog training, all of these laws are just about meaningless. Because anybody can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist and issue a certificate.

What would help service dog laws and communities are stronger enforcement of the laws already in place. Communities would benefit from more clear, concise, and consolidated laws from multiple agencies. Reforms that also clearly define the laws (in layman’s terms) to the public, businesses, condominiums, and coops boards would be constructive.

Service dog laws should be uniform across jurisdictions, and be enforced with clear, definable consequences for breaking the law. 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.

When discussing people’s disabilities, questioning and detecting service dog impersonators is a sensitive subject, but with an open, honest, and compassionate dialogue, much will be accomplished. Ideas to stop fake service dogs, and to help people and businesses understand what a service dog is are:

  • Enforceable clear, concise, and consolidated federal service dog laws for business owners and the public
  • Public service announcement campaigns to better educate each community
  • Licensing/regulation – 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 non-compliant 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

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