It seems the one issue I can’t escape from lately is that of fake service animals. My social media feeds are littered with posts about fake service dogs being caught by the authorities, pleas for legislation to counter the abuse of public access, or warnings on how to potentially spot a fake service dog. Off the Internet, I’ve overheard conversations from family, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers on the topic. The one glaring thing with all this outrage is that its entirely misplaced.
Now here me out, okay? I get it. The idea of someone parading their pet around eschewing the law is immoral, reprehensible, and arrogant. I’m sure nearly every pet owner would like nothing less than to never have to leave their companion home alone. Even when they understand the vast difference between a pet and a trained service animal, people will still lament their jealousy over my guide dog accompanying me while their pet is home. Sometimes they’ll even remark how they’re sure that same pet would be just as well behaved. Regardless of the validity of such a claim, they still aren’t afforded that right.
I am not, however, in the least bit bothered by the “fakers.” First, because the law is on my side. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” This sounds really broad and there is a reason for it. Most service animals that you’re aware of are quite visibly recognizable either by their working attire or their partner’s disability. However, there are many service animals utilized for “invisible disabilities” or those that you can’t determine just from casual observation. There are dogs trained to detect diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, for instance. Since the United States has very strict laws about medical privacy, and working with a service animal does not supersede that right, the broad definition is a necessity. Of course, in my experience, considering the exposure you receive by the very nature of working with a service animal, handlers tend to be more easygoing about answering questions about their disability.
Possibly more to the point, the second reason fake service animals don’t particular faze me is that their merely being in the public is not doing me a disservice. Sure, I don’t want them there and it can be infuriating to witness someone breaking the law without any consequences. But if they’re “faking” the job of being a service animal properly then they aren’t misrepresenting me as a handler nor are they actively interfering with my guide dog’s ability to do her job.
The law is also on my side if that fake service animal isn’t behaving because it has provisions for misbehaving service animals. And yes, sometimes service animals misbehave. It’s easy to assume this is because the animal wasn’t trained properly, but the truth is any number of reasons could be the cause of misbehavior. Service animals are not furry robots; they’re living beings who have off days, get overwhelmed, or just act out. Whatever the reason may be, a misbehaving service animal is unacceptable. Specifically, the law states “that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times” and when this is not the case “and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.”
After nearly twenty years of working with a service animal, I can say with certainty that awareness has grown exponentially about public access rights. However, more often than not while a proprietor may understand that service animals have to be allowed into their establishment they are not aware of their rights under the law. I’m of the belief that this is at least partly due to the paranoia of litigation that pervades, well, everything. Nevertheless, this is where your outrage should be focused: educating everyone about the law!
What we don’t need is more legislation to curb the supposed rampant fake service animals. Yes, there are pros and cons to a lot of potential ways to combat the abuse of the laws as they are presently written. I’m personally on the fence about many of them, but the big sticking point for me and many handlers here in the States is the issue of professional training. Presently, the law affords a handler freedom to choose between any trainer or program in order to obtain a service animal. This includes the right to train one’s own service animal. While all of my guide dogs have come from schools dedicated to training guide dogs and I personally anticipate that I will always utilize such services, every handler is different. Some relish the structure a program might offer, while others prefer the flexibility of their own training methods. Also, while there are many types of training programs, there are those who are unable to get the services they need from any of them.
In short, service animal handlers are not any more above the law than the fake ones. If you witness a handler not doing their job and/or their partner is causing a disruption in public, I urge you to call them out on it! Focus your energy on educating everyone about the law rather than wasting your time trying to defeat the very concept of those who might break it.