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Twenty-eight states have passed laws penalizing people for misrepresenting their pets as service dogs, with two more considering legislation this spring.
On a trip to Walt Disney World, Karen Shirk and her service dog were forced to take roundabout routes between attractions to avoid a woman with a snarling chihuahua clad in a service dog vest.
"We had to go way out of our way at least eight times to get to the ride we were going to, because this woman was there with this fake service dog chihuahua," said Shirk, CEO of 4 Paws For Ability, an Ohio-based nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with children and veterans. "It was in her bag, but it would jump out and come barking and lunging and snapping at us."
She's not alone. In Hawaii, a dog posing as a service animal attacked a legitimate service dog, traumatizing the disabled veteran the pooch was trained to help. In South Carolina, workers at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport have been bitten by animals in service vests and forced to clean up pet waste after the animals defecate and urinate on airport floors.
Fake service dogs are on the rise, a problem advocates say has increased in recent years thanks largely to the preponderance of service dog vests and bogus certification paperwork available for purchase online. In 2016, 77 percent of graduates from assistance dog organization Canine Companions for Independence had encountered a fraudulent or out-of-control service dog. More than 25 percent had 10 or more encounters, and more than half had those encounters result in their service dog being bitten, snapped at or distracted.
Across the country, legislators have taken note. As of January, 28 states had passed laws cracking down on the practice, with at least two more in the process of considering similar legislation. Advocates say those measures are necessary to protect people with disabilities who require legitimate service dogs to complete everyday tasks.
“These people don’t have a disability by choice. They need their service dogs to help them with their daily living tasks,” said Susann Guy, chief operating officer for Canine Partners for Life, a service dog training and placement nonprofit based in Pennsylvania. “Then there are other people out there who just want to have their pet out with them because it’s fun, or it makes them feel comfortable. That harms the people with legitimate service dogs because then people are looking at them a little more closely; looking at the dog and wondering if it’s a legitimate service dog. That’s a real disservice.”
'Working Animals, Not Pets'
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” including guiding a blind person, pulling a wheelchair or alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure.
“Service animals are working animals, not pets,” the definition continues. “The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Because of their unique capabilities, service dogs have the right to accompany their owners in public places where animals would normally not be permitted, including restaurants, shops and hospitals. Even when it’s not obvious what service the dog provides, business owners are prohibited from asking questions about a person’s disability and cannot request medical documentation or training certification paperwork, and cannot request a demonstration of the dog’s abilities. Service dogs can be asked to leave a business only if they become disruptive or are not housebroken.
Those guidelines were written to make life easier for people with disabilities, Shirk said.
“The intentions were good, but it almost sort of backfired,” she said. “Fake service dogs are a problem all over the world, but it’s probably worse here because our rules and regulations are so lenient. In other countries, dogs have to pass national standard testing and you have to have some kind of identification. Here, you can self-train your dog and you don’t need anything.”
There’s no tracking system for service dogs in the United States. There’s also no national registry or agreed-upon set of training standards, which can make it difficult to police the problem, said Sally Day, director of development for Service Dogs of Virginia.
“The waters are really muddy. Anybody can go online and print out documentation that says that their dog is a registered service animal,” she said. “But there is no national registry for service dogs. If there was, it would have been written into the ADA law. The thinking behind that was that it would be an additional burden for someone with a disability because they’d then have to register their dog, but it creates that muddy water.”
That, along with a proliferation of online retailers selling dog vests and bogus certification papers, makes it easy for anyone with internet access to make their dog look the part of a working service animal.
“There are hundreds of online sellers and fake registries. You see ads all over Facebook that say things like, ‘Take your pet anywhere,’” Shirk said. “You can go on Amazon and buy a vest that says ‘service dog.’ Anybody who wants to can fake their dogs, in public, as service dogs.”
That amounts to impersonating someone with a disability, Guy said. On its own, it’s unethical, but problems begin to snowball when a dog that isn't trained to spend its life in public spaces begins venturing with its owner to restaurants, stores and airports.
“We train all of our dogs to the specific situation, so if a future client says to us, ‘I fly a lot for work,’ we go to the airport. We train going through security, going on the escalators, climbing the steps to get on the plane, being in the plane,” Day said. “People who just don’t want to be away from their pet aren’t doing that, so they’re potentially traumatizing the animal. That’s why you hear about people being lunged at and nipped at—because those dogs are not trained to be in the situations they’re placed in.”
The result can be traumatic. Shirk’s service dog was attacked by an untrained dog wearing a working dog vest, and she’s had numerous clients report similar incidents. It can also add to existing stigma against people with disabilities, leading business owners and airport workers to be wary even of well-trained service dogs who actually help their handlers.
“I think these people justify it because they don’t think they’re hurting anybody, but life for people with disabilities is already hard enough,” Shirk said. “We don’t need them making it harder. When they do these things, they ruin a good thing for people who have true disabilities who actually need assistance to access the community.”
Legislators are increasingly aware of the issue. Oregon and South Carolina are currently considering legislation to penalize people who misrepresent their pets as service dogs, and a third bill is seeking sponsorship in Montana. Each levies a fine and makes the offense a civil infraction or a misdemeanor, with community service as a possible penalty in some versions.
In South Carolina, the proposed bill would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally misrepresent a pet or emotional support animal as a service animal. Fines would range from $350 for a first offense up to $5,000 and 10 hours of community service for third and subsequent offenses.
The bill is meant to protect members of the public from animals who do not have the right to be in stores and airport terminals, according to state Sen. Scott Talley, a Republican from Spartanburg who co-sponsored the legislation.
“The Greenville-Spartanburg Airport is in my district, and based on issues that arose there, I worked with the administration to draft this bill,” he said. “We are simply trying to protect the public from animals that are being misrepresented and have caused problems.”
The existence of such laws may work as deterrents, Guy said. But they’re difficult to enforce given the restrictions put in place by the ADA.
“Let’s say a business owner calls the police and says, ‘There is someone in here with a service dog and I don’t think it’s legitimate,’” she said. “If the person admits it, that’s one thing, but if they don’t, there’s nothing in place to prove whether it is a service dog. There’s no national registry or paperwork. There are physical disabilities you can recognize, but some service dogs assist people with disabilities that you can’t see, like Type 1 diabetes or epilepsy. And you can’t ask about the disability and you can’t ask the dog to perform its service skills.”
Other solutions have been debated in the service dog community. Day favors a proposal that would require service dog owners annually to take what’s known as a public access test, where an expert assesses whether a dog is properly trained to assist its owner in public. People who pass the test could receive an identification card with both a date of issue and an expiration date.
“If I was a business owner, I’d really like that, but I think we’re pretty far from it,” she said.
Shirk supports the idea of regulating the online sale of service dog vests, as well as cracking down on fake dog registries. An oft-discussed option is establishing a national registry, though that would raise similar questions of enforcement and oversight, Guy said. Barring that, most advocates day-to-day simply try to educate people on the characteristics of a trained service animal—and why it’s unfair to try to make your dog look like a working service dog if it isn’t trained to be one.
“Just having that heightened awareness of fake service dogs could be good for our industry,” she said. “We’re trying to educate people about how it’s morally wrong to say that you have a disability when you don’t. You are impersonating someone with a disability, and on top of that it’s not safe for the dog to be out in public. It’s just not the right thing to do.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.