Danielle M. Eriksen: Those who rely on service dogs are harmed by pet owners who break the law

  • Wonder, the retired service dog for Ehlena Fry, 12, of Jackson, Michigan, waits outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 31. Fry, who has cerebral palsy, was banned from bringing Wonder to class when she was 5 years old, and the court was hearing oral arguments in her case. Fry and others who rely on service dogs suffer when people pass off their pets as service animals. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/15/2017 12:20:06 AM

There’s a disturbing trend among some dog owners lately: passing their dogs off as service dogs in order to take them into public places where dogs are not allowed. These people may think their actions are harmless. They’re wrong.

Policies preventing dogs from entering public spaces are there for a reason; some people have allergies, and poorly trained dogs may misbehave, have toileting accidents or frighten people or children who aren’t comfortable around dogs. Poorly trained dogs may also distract or frighten real service dogs, which puts their handlers at risk.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that in part states that assistance dogs must be allowed in places of business where pet dogs are prohibited. Service animals open the world up for people with disabilities, providing independence and freedom, and helping them to live and work more productive and happy lives.

References to guide dogs for blind people go back to the 16th century and earlier, but the first schools to train guide dogs were in Germany after World War I. In recent years, the work of assistance dogs has expanded by leaps and bounds. In addition to guiding those with vision impairments, assistance dogs are now commonly trained as hearing alert dogs, dogs who assist people with mobility impairments (in walking, pulling wheelchairs, picking up objects and turning on lights), and seizure alert dogs, to name just a few.

To qualify for a service dog, a person must have a documented disability. Under the ADA, service dogs do not need to display any identification, such as a vest or a badge. Managers of public establishments aren’t allowed to ask a handler whether they have a disability. Instead, they can ask only if the dog is a service animal required to help with a disability, and if so, what task(s) the dog has been trained to perform.

While it’s usually obvious if a service dog is assisting someone who is vision impaired (their harnesses are fairly distinctive), service dogs assist with a variety of disabilities that aren’t as readily apparent. In many cases, management doesn’t want to insult an individual and won’t ask the two questions they’re allowed to ask under the law. This is why people are managing to fraudulently pass their dogs off as service dogs to take them in public.

There are now a number of companies online that sell fake service dog kits, which include certificates, leashes, collars, vests and “lifetime registration,” or in some cases, “annual registration” of a service dog. They gouge consumers for $79 to $199 or more for these fraudulent packages. They don’t check whether people have real disabilities or whether the dogs have any training.

If you have a real service dog, you don’t need one of these kits. There is no real national registry for service dogs. Companies like this are scamming consumers. Don’t buy into it. In fact, even the government website regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act points this out: “There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”

These companies also sell fraudulent identification for therapy dogs and emotional support dogs, so it’s worth noting those designations as well.

Therapy dogs are dogs that, along with their handlers, visit various establishments to provide enrichment, stress relief or help build self-esteem. They visit hospitals, nursing homes or may go to libraries as part of reading programs. There are a number of organizations that certify therapy dogs and their handlers, testing for temperament and suitability. Most have strict health requirements regarding dogs’ vaccination status, parasite prevention, etc. Therapy dogs are not covered by any of the provisions of the ADA, and may not enter public spaces without specific permission of the management.

Emotional support dogs are those whose purpose is to provide emotional support to individuals with documented mental health conditions. They may or may not have special training. Because they are not service dogs, they are not covered under the ADA; however, certain housing regulations apply to them, such as the Fair Housing Act.

In 2014, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law making it illegal to fraudulently represent your dog as a service animal. RSA 167-D:8 states: “It is unlawful for any person to fit an animal with a collar, leash, vest, sign or harness of the type which represents that the animal is a service animal, or service animal tag issued under RSA 466:8 or to request a service animal tag issued under RSA 466:8 if in fact said animal is not a service animal.”

The law goes on to state: “It is unlawful for any person to represent that such person has a disability or is a service animal trainer for the purpose of acquiring a service animal unless said person has a disability or is a service animal trainer and to impersonate, by word or action, a person with a disability for the purpose of receiving service dog accommodations or service animal accessories such as a collar, leash, vest, sign, harness, or service animal tag, which represents that the animal is a service animal or to acquire a service animal tag issued under RSA 466:8.”

Violation of this law is a misdemeanor, and subject to enhanced penalties further described in the RSA.

More and more places are becoming “dog-friendly” these days. We’re still far behind Europe, where well-behaved dogs join their owners in many public buildings and spaces. The way to change this isn’t by breaking the law with your own dog and defiantly taking it into the grocery store. If you don’t like the existing laws, consider contacting your local representatives in an effort to change them. In the meantime, understand that every time you break this law, you’re putting the rights of hard-working service dogs and their owners who depend on them at risk. It’s selfish. It’s fraudulent. It’s illegal. And, yes, it matters.

(Danielle M. Eriksen lives in Weare.)

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