You’re in a restaurant or walking through a store, you see someone walking about with a dog and you think to yourself – “hey, I didn’t know dogs were allowed in here.” Well, turns out you’re right. Dogs aren’t allowed, but service animals are!
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) dictates that service animals can accompany people with disabilities in all aspects of everyday life – to the grocery store, a restaurant, the cabin of an airplane and even into pet-free living situations. According to the ADA, only a dog can be a service animal, the owner must have a documented disability, the dog is trained to perform a task to alleviate that disability, and the dog’s presence does not alter the environment for others. This is not the case under other federal or state laws under which any animal can qualify as a service animal.
The ADA doesn’t, however, set forth what types of disabilities qualify for use of a service animal, nor does it set forth any government certification or standards for service animals. Owners aren’t required to carry any proof of a dog’s training. Obtaining collars, vets, tags and other accouterments imprinted with the moniker “service dog” is as easy as going online. For those working in an otherwise dog free environment they cannot ask for proof of a disability or for proof that dog has been trained as a service animal.
The result of this lack of federal guidelines coupled with the inability to inquire has, according to some, created the opportunity for abuse of the ADA when those without disabilities are outfitting their pets as service animals simply to gain access to forbidden locations. While on its face there might not appear to be much harm done by this kind of service animal fraud, there is the larger picture of undermining the intent of the ADA and creating an environment where legitimate service animals and their owners are viewed with suspicion.
So what can you do? Should you simply expect some bad actors to abuse the ADA and the service animal rules, but accept that as a necessary evil to enable those truly in need of a service animal to be able to use them without intrusive questions? Should there be federal standards for training service animals? With such diverse needs could reasonable standards be promulgated? For people really in need of a service animal, are more regulatory hoops to jump through the answer? Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national group headquartered in Northern California, is petitioning the federal government to at least ban the online sale of service dog products hoping that this will stop at least some of the service dog fraud.
Sadly, we don’t think that any of this will help. We love pets, we spend our days (and many nights) caring for peoples’ pets, but we understand that they are pets. They may be trained to behave well in San Francisco (if not – allow us to plug our Camper Cadet program here please), but that doesn’t mean that they are service dogs. For as long as there have been situations in which a person can create an advantage for themselves, people have done so, and the service dog situation is simply no different. Some people just seem to think that they are “special” and the rules don’t apply to them. Have we just gotten too cynical? Is there a balance that can be struck to preserve the rights of those who need service dogs without opening up the opportunity for abuse? What do you think?
Thanks for reading!
When I see someone with a service dog it’s usually obvious the person is disabled. But I saw someone in Safeway last week that had two huge golden retrievers wearing service dog vests. This man looked to be somewhere between 65 and 75 years old, probably retired. He was walking them through the aisles pushing a cart with one on each side. No one could pass. I didn’t see him come up behind me and when I turned around I almost tripped over one of them. The dogs appeared to be very old, overweight and walked very slowly. Maybe he was their service person instead of vise versa. The man appeared to be in good health walking without a cane or a limp so it seemed odd that he had these dogs with him. He looked perfectly healthy to me. The store manager came up and spoke to him but I couldn’t hear what was said. The man stayed in line and didn’t leave until he checked out.