Doing A Disservice: The Harm In Service Dog Fraud

A service dog provides help for a disabled person.

You may have noticed the signs outside of businesses becoming more prominent lately. They all carry a similar message: Only legitimate service dogs allowed. And, in some jurisdictions, they are now adding a reminder that service dog fraud is a crime.

What Exactly is “Service Dog Fraud?”

First, what it isn’t. You may see statements that service dog fraud is a federal crime, but it isn’t — at least not when it comes to a person with a fake service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does cover the definition of service animals, which is currently limited strictly to dogs and miniature horses, but it does not provide any penalties at the moment for falsely claiming that a companion animal is a service animal. Regulation and registration of those animals — other than what kind of animal they can be — are left up to the states.

However, the ADA does require almost all businesses to allow entry to legitimate service animals and only allows those businesses to ask two questions:

  1. Is this a service dog required because of disability?
  2. What is it trained to do to mitigate the disability?

Service vs. Support

Obviously, this means that businesses can reject all other animals outright because they would never fall under the definition, but maneuvering around the law in order to determine whether an animal is legitimate can open that business to federal penalties if they wrongfully reject a real service animal from their premises. The only exception is if the animal becomes disruptive or is not housetrained.

Also note that a dog must be trained to actively do something to help with a disability, which creates another gray area. A legitimate PTSD service dog, for example, is trained to sense when its handler might be in danger of having a panic attack and taking action in order to prevent or mitigate that attack. However, if someone, even if they’re suffering from PTSD, wants to bring along their untrained dog because it makes them feel calmer or more secure that is, unfortunately, an example of service dog fraud.

There is an exception when it comes to air travel. The Air Carrier Access Act does allow both service dogs and emotional support animals (ESA) to travel on airplanes. However, there are strict requirements for ESAs, including a letter dated within the past year from a mental health professional stating that the traveler has been diagnosed with a mental-health related disability as defined in the DSM-IV, that the animal is necessary to the passenger’s health or treatment, and that the passenger is under the care of the professional who wrote the letter.

Abusing the System

Recently, far too many people have been taking advantage of the law fraudulently, leading to non-service dogs being brought into places where they don’t belong, like restaurants, grocery stores, and movie theaters. An entire industry of fake service animal “registration” businesses has also cropped up, largely online and generally unregulated.

As a dog owner, it’s never a good idea to use one of these services. As a business owner, it’s a good idea to know how to be able to spot fake certification. And, as a direct result of this abuse, many states have now made such fraud a criminal act, hence the new warnings appearing.

States Respond

California, for example, has the harshest penalties for fraud, which the law describes as when someone “knowingly and fraudulently represents himself or herself, through verbal or written notice, to be the owner or trainer of any canine licensed/qualified/identified as a guide, signal, or service dog…” (CA Penal Code § 365.7). The penalty is up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Currently, California and eighteen other states have laws concerning service animal fraud: Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, and other states, like Massachusetts, are working on their own laws.

Not a Victimless Crime

We all love our dogs, and it’s understandable to want to take them everywhere with us — the upswing in dog-friendly workplaces and restaurants demonstrates that. However, as attractive as the idea may be, there are just places where dogs don’t belong.

And this isn’t just about bothering people who might be allergic or who don’t like dogs. It can be a very stressful experience for a dog that isn’t trained to handle crowds or busy public places. It can also harm people with a legitimate need by forcing businesses to question everyone with a service animal.

So unless you do have a legitimate disability and a trained service dog leave your dog (or cat or ferret or other furry friend) at home the next time you’re going somewhere that only allows service dogs. It’ll be better for your pet, for you, and for the community in general.

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