We See You, Fake Service Dog Owners

You're ruining it for people who actually need them.

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Sep 8 2017, 12:00pm

Anadolu Agency

I get it: You want to fly with your dog. You want to overrule your landlord's anti-pet policy, and it would be nice to bring your fur-baby into a restaurant with you. I have a dog too, and I certainly don't want her flying in the belly of a plane, subject to cold temperatures, shifting luggage, and the whims and inconsistencies of airline pet handling.

But you know who else wants to spend extra time with their dog? The visually impaired, who deserve the opportunity to live a more navigable life. Wheelchair-bound individuals who simply want more autonomy. Those who have PTSD or epilepsy and require a specially trained helper to get them through an episode or panic or seizure. Disabled people bring dogs with them because they depend on those highly-trained animals not only for independence, but survival.

That's why the Americans with Disabilities Act was legislated in 1990. People with legitimate needs required the use of dogs—again, highly-trained ones—to help them live "normal" lives, and this need was so great it had to be recognized by the federal government.

So when I was waiting for my flight at the Albuquerque Sunport, I was shocked to witness a large-breed hound-type with a bright red vest boasting service animal status squat down and unrelentingly piss all over the tile floor. The owner quickly flung his jacket to the ground, soaking up the smelly mess, while looking around to see if anyone noticed.

The thing is, a true service animal, one with years of training, would not have made that mistake. And even if they had, anyone whose daily life consists of managing that animal would know to bring their accidental-mess-kit, like the one I was required to carry for two years while raising and training a puppy with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB).

This was no isolated incident. In my years as a trainer I've seen countless vest-clad dogs barking, biting, peeing, jumping, and generally doing things that even a mildly-trained dog wouldn't do. During my time as a puppy raiser, the visually impaired people that joined my local GDB group repeatedly shared stories about non-service dogs that distracted their guides in places where pets were otherwise not allowed. Outside recently published a collection of data and anecdotes supporting the reality and severity of this problem.

But apparently for many, the need to bring a beloved pet into dog-free places supersedes the survival needs of the disabled. The primary ADA loophole that people exploit is about the legality of questioning the legitimacy of a service animal: "Staff cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task."

While this rule maintains a level of respect and privacy for the disabled, it makes it really easy to pretend your pet is a specially trained service dog by calling it an emotional support animal, even though "dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA." Whereas someone with PTSD would have a service dog that is specifically one-on-one trained to sense and respond to an oncoming anxiety attack, an ESA simply offers comfort by virtue of being there.

But to an onlooker—or more importantly, someone who could lose their job for refusing to accommodate a service animal team—there is heavy incentivization to tolerate the presence of all dogs, trained and otherwise, because questioning the dog's service legitimacy would be breaking the law. A law which, by the way, exists so that disabled people wouldn't have to be further called out or stigmatized.

Yet people are enthusiastic about pushing the boundaries of this law to meet their personal desires. And it's a more serious problem than just dismissing these people as insensitive. First off, as I mentioned, untrained animals are really good at testing the training of even the most excellent service dogs. When a dog is the literal eyeballs of a human being, distraction can be death. If a regular dog is allowed to distract a service animal in a confined area, this could mean it might miss the signs of its person's seizures, or send their person walking into a doorframe, hitting their head. That's why it's a major faux pas as a human to touch or get the attention of a working dog.

Which brings me to my second point: Most people with ostensible service animals that are neither trained nor certified will often allow and encourage people to interact with their dog. They wear the Service Dog vest, appear in places where most dogs can't go, and confuse the hell out of people when they later encounter a true service dog. Children, who struggle with animal boundaries to begin with, really get thrown for a loop when they can pet one vested dog but not the next.

Third, vendors don't enjoy having raucous canines in their establishments. I'm sure the Albuquerque airport isn't thrilled that there's a partially sopped up puddle of dog pee on their floor that someone now has to clean up, just because one person felt the rules don't to apply to them. This leads businesses to pressure legislators against ADA rules, which only ends up hurting the people it was created to protect.

This is not to say emotional support animals shouldn't be a thing. Many people benefit from their companionship and when registered for legitimate reasons, they can provide incredible therapy. It's when pet dogs are costumed up as service animals under the banner of an ESA that it becomes an ethical dilemma, hurting not only the disabled but people who genuinely need ESAs as well. Hell, I trained my own dog using GDB standards to assist with my diagnosed PTSD episodes, and even she doesn't meet the service dog certification requirements, so I don't parade her around like she does—even though she's better trained than most pups out there.

Conflating indistinguishable emotional support animals with service dogs means that a few people gain a minor benefit at the expense of the safety and security of disabled people. And that's a pretty ugly equation.

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