Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Where Are All These Fake Service Dogs?

It seems like every few weeks, I'm reading an article somewhere about how people are buying service dog vests online and bam! wreaking havoc upon the world with their "fake" service dogs.

This always leaves me wondering how on earth anyone knows how many "fake" service dogs are out there. Maybe someone could do a vaguely scientific survey or something, but so far all we have are panicked cries of foul play and no factual evidence that folks are buying up service dogs like I do cheap stuffed toys for my dogs (I buy a lot of them, btw). Such was the implication the Sun Sentinel put out earlier this month.

While there are myriad online certification services available, their mere existence may not indicate an upsurge in fraudulent service dogs. Equally possible, their presence could indicate a misunderstanding of what is required for a service dog in public. Certification is not one of those things. A vest is not, either. A dog could be in a pink tutu wearing a rhinestone collar and still qualify as a service dog. Humans will always take advantage of other humans, and if you read any of these "service dog certification" websites, you might be induced through scare tactics to play it safe and buy one of their packages. The problem isn't, by necessity, people who purchase through these vendors but the vendors themselves.

There are also parts of the article that make me sad. "Kutsukos, whose service dog helps with his seizures, said the fake certifications "make it difficult for people with legitimate service dogs to do things.""

No one should feel this way, but I understand why they do. Kutsukos should be at ease. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made life easier for those with disabilities, include those who work with service dogs. If a business reacts poorly to one incident with a "fake" service dog, by federal and most state laws, well, tough shiz-nit. They still cannot make life harder for other disabled persons with service dogs...not legally anyways. Businesses have to deal with different customer personalities each day. Somehow they manage no to transfer their annoyance with every woman in a red hat because one came in earlier screaming obscenities. Yes, it is unfortunate that there are people who take advantage of the ADA, but more disappointing would be a business' inability to understand that one "bad apple" is not indicative of all apples.  Also illegal.

Like this imaginary restaurant manager, "A restaurant manager, for example, might think twice about allowing a legitimate service dog inside because of a bad experience with a fake service dog that barked or misbehaved."

Tough. Restaurant manager can think fifty times, but s/he cannot actually disallow service dogs inside their place of business. Not unless they want to face the penalties for violating federal and state law. 

Further, even the nicest service dog may bark or misbehave. Per the ADA, a service dog handler can be asked to leave if their dog is not housetrained or out of control. A constantly barking dog or a misbehaving dog would fall under the latter.

But what gets me about this article is this piece of tripe, "The best way to tell if a service dog is legitimate is to observe its behavior, authorities say. Service dogs won't appear restless or jump or bark. They will obey the disabled owner's commands, perform tasks and lie down passively where instructed."

Wrong. There is no "best way" to tell if a service dog is legitimate. A service dog who alerts for seizures may in fact appear restless, jump or bark. At the end of the day, a service dog is a dog first. Ideally, they are comfortable in different settings, take a few years to properly train or settle into their new job, and are not anxious about everything going on. But sometimes they have bad days. When they are acting up, I am certain their handler and business owner can come to a compromise - getting the dog and handler to a calmer place, going outside for a few minutes to calm the dog down, etc.
Some service dogs do not perform obvious tasks. Perhaps they are simply there to add stability or support to a person with balance issues. Perhaps they alert to signs of possible insulin shock.

You cannot assume that because a service dog barks or stands attentively instead of lying down that they are not a service dog. By federal law,a business owner can ask a person with a service dog if their dog is required because of a disability and what tasks/services does that dog provide. If a person answers they provide emotional support, then  it is reasonable and fair to enforce the no dogs rule, as emotional support dogs are not considered - by the ADA - service dogs.

It is certainly appalling and unfair that there are people who would take advantage of what is an equalizing law and abuse it. Whenever possible, they should be penalized or educated on how harmful their actions are for people who rely on service dogs to literally make it out the door.

But I have yet to see any evidence that this is a significant problem, that the majority of service dogs are actually fake. Even then, I'm not sure what could be done. Persons with disabilities deserve the same equal access as anyone else. While I would expect reasonable steps to be taken to prevent miscreants from using the law to their advantage, I wonder if these types of articles create problems where there may not be any.


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