04 March 2016

New Laws to Address Service Animal Deception

Is it a dog with a job or simply a dupe trying to pass their pooch off as a legitimate service dog?

A disturbing proliferation of some trying to pose as people with service dogs is leaving those legitimately relying on the canines frustrated and threatening the believability of those truly needing the tool.

And, according to the Associated Press (AP,) it has prompted lawmakers in several U.S. states to look to legislation to restore the animals' credibility.

A 2010 amendment to United States law states “service animals are defined as dogs that are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” stating “service dogs are working animals, not pets.”

Dogs' tasks include everything from guiding the blind to alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding people with mental illness to take medications and calming people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The definition does not include dogs recruited to offer comfort or emotional support and certainly doesn't include a Wisconsin woman who last year tried to claim she could bring her kangaroo into McDonald's.

Cases like those and others where people falsely claim their canine is a service dog have prompted legislatures in some states to consider bills that would either establish a service-dog program or penalize people who fraudulently claim to have one, AP reports.

A task force in Maine recently reported that “well-meaning federal laws designed to protect people with disabilities have instead opened the door to fraud.”

And dishonest dog owners dole out consequences for those who legitimately need four-legged friends to navigate life – leading to encounters with sceptics and confrontations everywhere from restaurants to businesses.

Cases lacking credibility, however, are happening in part because there are no requirements for people to have papers to prove a canine cohort is indeed a service dog. That means a dude can take his dachshund to dinner, for instance, and dare anyone to dispute his claim the dog is helping him cope with a disability.

Because the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination and there are no requirements for licensing, certification or identification of service dogs, it is not only bad form to discriminate but potentiality has legal consequences.

Business are only allowed to ask – is a dog needed because of a disability and what task are they trained to do – and answers must be taken at face value, regardless of whether the dog's service status is legitimate, or there could be charges, fines or lawsuits.

In the year ending June 30, 2014, there were 1,939 lawsuits in the U.S. for ADA violations, up 55% from the previous year – including a case where a condominium association paid a resident $300,000 for not allowing them to keep a service dog.

“People have also asserted service animal status for pigs, cats, rabbits, turkeys, llamas, snakes and turtles,” Jeanine Konopelski, spokeswoman for Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based non-profit that supplies disabled people with trained service dogs, told AP. “In many of those cases, people aren’t lying but misunderstand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.”

To that end, some states are looking at launching public information campaigns or introduce state-issued cards to verify service dogs. Florida last year passed a law that makes misrepresenting a service animal a crime punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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