Fake Service Animal Use Prompts Community Concerns

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

Apparently, some people in a Pennsylvania community are passing their pets off as service dogs — and the business owners there aren’t happy about it.

According to a recent media account, the concerns about alleged activity prompted a community meeting at the Kennett Public Library in Kennett Square. The chief concern addressed there was that laws designed to protect people who really need service dogs also make it difficult to take any action against people who clearly don’t.

Use of service animals under the ADA

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as, “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

guide dog demo
Fidelco Guide Dog Demonstration. Puttin’ On The Dog, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

In this context, a dog that is taught to detect the onset of a medical emergency such as an epileptic seizure, or hyper/hypoglycemia in a diabetic, and take a specific action to help the person based on that is legally classified as a service animal. A dog that facilitates routine tasks or its handler’s mobility can also be classified as a service animal.

The ADA differentiates service dogs/service animals from emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals, which “provide comfort just by being with a person,” and have not been trained to perform specific tasks.

However, the ADA also stipulates that:

  1. There are no breed restrictions when it comes to service animals.
  2. Exclusion of a service animal based solely on “assumptions or stereotypes about the animal’s breed or how the animal might behave” is not permitted. The only exception to this is if  “a particular service animal behaves in a way that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, has a history of such behavior, or is not under the control of the handler.”
  3. Communities that ban certain breeds “must make an exception for a service animal of a prohibited breed, unless the dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
  4. There are no requirements pertaining to the use of vests, ID tags, or specific harnesses to identify service animals.
  5. Service animals must be under the control of the handler at all times.

Exclusion of service animals under the ADA

In accordance with the ADA, a handler may be asked to remove the service animal from the premises if it is “out of control” and the handler fails to “take effective action to control it.”

Businesses are also allowed to prevent service animals from entering the premises of admitting them would “fundamentally alter the nature of the service” provided there.

In this context, it is also important to note that proprietors and staff can only ask for limited information in situations where it is not clear whether the dog is really a service animal. Specifically, they can ask: a) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and; b) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

They cannot ask for any documentation for the dog, demand that the dog demonstrate its task, or ask about the nature of the person’s disability.

In many cases, the Department of Justice says, it would be pointless to ask for documentation even if businesses and proprietors were allowed to do so.

“There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online,” the agency explains. “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.”

What about housing?

The ADA applies to any housing program overseen by a state or local government, such as a public housing authority, and by places of public accommodation, including public and private universities.

Then there’s the Fair Housing Act, which covers nearly every type of housing, regardless of whether it is public or privately owned; including housing covered by the ADA. Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers must permit, “as a reasonable accommodation,” the use of animals that “work, provide assistance, or perform tasks that benefit persons with a disabilities, or provide emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of a disability.”

You can learn more here.

The bottom line

As stories about  “fake” service dogs and emotional support animals continue to make headlines, lawmakers across the country are taking notice. To date, 21 states have taken steps to deter people from wrongfully presenting their pets as service and support animals.

Recently, I wrote about Connecticut’s efforts to thwart the activity. You can find that post here.


Who needs a therapist when you’ve got a cat?

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

Lately I’ve been so busy that I’ve hardly had time to think, much less keep up with my blog. Between work and ongoing renovations at home, well… busy is a bit of an understatement. At times I’ve been completely overwhelmed.

But there’s a bright side. I haven’t spent a dime on therapy, anti-anxiety pills or any other medicine, for that matter. There’s no need for any of that. I have a cat.

No matter what’s going on, Eli knows how to make me laugh. Last night, he did it by “hunting” the ribbon I was using as a bookmark. This morning, he brightened my day by chasing a little scrap of paper across our new hardwood floors. It turned out his “toy” was a Chinese fortune that said: “When you begin to coast, you are on the downgrade.”

Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

Go figure…

When he’s not entertaining me, Eli’s a great listener. He lets me vent without interrupting. In fact, he doesn’t say a word and he always agrees. Unless I raise my voice. Then he bites me. What can I say? He hates angry voices.

Eli also helps me keep my stress in check at work. He makes sure that I get up to pay attention to him every so often. And once he’s had enough of that, he curls up at my feet to keep me company…

He always knows when I’m upset. He knows when I need space, and when I need comfort — and acts accordingly. He lets me cuddle him when I’m sad, and he doesn’t fuss when my tears soak his fur.

Technically, Eli isn’t an emotional support animal or a certified therapy animal. But he’s definitely my “therapy cat.” And I love him to pieces…

Curbing the use of comfort pets: an emotional issue

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with a client and one of her colleagues to co-research and co-write an article about the use of Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs).

The article appeared “Animal Law” edition of the Maryland Bar Journal. You can find it here. Because it’s a fairly long piece, I totally understand if you don’t have time to read the whole thing. In fact, I’d be happy to hit the high points for you.

Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

Basically, we began by describing Services Animals and ESAs, and discussed the rules and regulations governing their use. We also touched on some of the controversies stemming from their use. Most importantly, we shared ideas about how to accommodate everyone’s needs without resorting to costly and ineffective litigation.

Little did I know how timely that article would turn out to be. Since its publication this summer, I have seen countless stories about the same topics in the mainstream media. In fact, I found this one just a couple of weeks ago. It’s about someone taking a duck on a plane.

Yes, you heard me. A duck! I’m sorry. That’s utterly ridiculous. I’ve heard of people being allowed to take service dogs on planes (and even that causes problems sometimes). But a duck?

Yes, it sounds crazy. But apparently it’s not all that unusual. In fact, if a passenger has proper documentation, it seems like almost anything goes.

“We have seen service monkeys, even comfort pigs,” TSA spokesperson Mike McCarthy told the media. “There really isn’t much that would surprise our officers,” he added.

There’s no doubt that service animals, Emotional Support Animals and therapy animals help people cope with and overcome serious physical and psychological issues. And I suppose there’s no rule that says that a service animal, Emotional Support Animal or therapy animal must be a dog or cat. Horses have “worked” as therapy animals for years.

I can’t say for sure but I would venture to guess that most reasonable, open-minded people don’t mind if someone travels with a service animal or ESA — as long as there is a legitimate need. From what I’ve seen and heard, troubles arise when it is obvious that the person with the service animal or ESA abuses the rules.

Beyond that, there are other legitimate concerns. As someone who was once horribly allergic to dogs, cats (and just about every other animal you could possibly imagine), I am not to sure how I would have felt about being cooped up on an airplane with a dog nearby.

There are also people who are afraid of some animals — especially dogs. Who knows. Perhaps there are some people who are equally afraid of pigs, ducks, lizards and any other assortment of animals permitted on public transportation these days. Is it really fair to subject them to emotional distress just to accommodate someone else’s needs?

For the purposes of this blog, that is a rhetorical question. But it also warrants serious thought.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.

As long as people love animals — and as long as service animals, ESAs and therapy animals continue to help their human counterparts cope with physical and psychological challenges — the debate will continue.