A disturbing trend has been observed in New York and California: pet owners attempting to pass off their dogs as service dogs. From public transportation to posh restaurants, certain dog owners are either simply calling their dogs service animals, or going as far as to dress their fake service dogs in fake service vests.
The Press Democrat, which covers Napa and Sonoma counties in California, described an encounter between Ann Meacham and her service dog, Duncan, and a couple with a pit bull. The pair and their pit bull boarded Meacham’s Amtrak bus—though non-service animals are banned from public transport—and simply said their dog was a service dog. “For the rest of the ride,” reports the paper, “the dog snarled at Duncan.”
Service dogs undergo extensive training to learn how to behave and how to assist their owners. The Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that “A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability,” and that, in general, establishments “must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.” To some pet owners, that right looks like a free pass to bring dogs wherever they please.
Service dogs are trained to do various tasks. According to the ADA, these include: guiding blind people; alerting deaf people; pulling a wheelchair, “alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack,” in addition to other duties. However, “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals,” according to the ADA.
The line between service animal and pet is clearly defined by both the law and service trainers, but not as easily recognized by certain pet owners. A California woman, who brings her 50-pound dog everywhere and who suffers from vertigo, told the Press-Democrat, “I just explain that I get attacks of vertigo and my dog is trained to assist me and lead me to a safe place.” Yet her dog is not a trained service dog.
A New York Post reporter took matters into her own hands, adorning a golden retriever-poodle mix with a fake service dog patch and escorting him to an expensive Manhattan restaurant where, despite the dog’s behavior and the discomfort of other customers (he leapt up and nibbled from plates), staff did not ask about his service credentials. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits them from asking for an animal’s credentials or inquiring about the human companion’s disability. In another experiment with a faux service dog, a well-behaved dog (albeit one not trained to serve an owner with a disability) earned good reception from onlookers and store workers. Transit workers are at a similar crossroads when it comes to determining whether a service dog truly is a service dog—or an impostor. “We don’t have the time or desire to get into debates with people as to whether they have a service dog or not, and that’s a dangerous debate to get into in the civil rights arena,” Steve Roraus, a California bus transit supervisor, told the Post-Dispatch.
At a recent dog run unveiling, Diana Taylor, girlfriend of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, spoke out against the faux-pas practice, declaring it would “ruin it for people that actually need service dogs,’’ and that it is “unfair for people to take advantage of a system put in place to really help those who need it.’’