This post has been sitting in my editorial calendar for some time. Fake service animals are creating a host of problems for people with genuine need. The topic of service dog fraud is a difficult one, fraught with strong emotions on all sides. It’s time to clear the air in a constructive way.
Service, assistance, or emotional support. What’s the difference?
There are some misconceptions out there about what makes an animal a service animal. There are key differences between service animals and emotional support animals.
A service animal is a working animal that has been trained to perform specific tasks to help someone with a disability. By law, service animals may enter public areas, including airplanes and other public transportation, with their handlers. Consequently, these animals must be well-trained, and cannot present a physical danger. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes only dogs and miniature horses as service animals.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that provides companionship and emotional support for those diagnosed with a psychological disorder. These animals do not have to be trained for a specific task. Airlines allow ESAs on airplanes under the Air Carrier’s Act.
Both service animals and emotional support animals fit under the umbrella of assistance animals. However, emotional support animals do not have the same protection under the law as do service animals.
Service Animal Certification
Some organizations legitimately train and certify service animals. However, the law does not require service animals to undergo certification. Training programs for service animals are generally quite costly. For instance, it takes about $50,000 to train a dog through Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Such high costs may be a barrier for some people with disabilities. Although Guiding Eyes, like many non-profits, provides these dogs free of charge to people who need them, they can’t help everyone. For this reason,those with disabilities may legally train their own animals.
It is against the law to require a handler of a service animal to present proof of disability. In contrast, employees may ask the handlers of ESAs to present documentation from a health care provider. By law, airlines may require this documentation before accommodating an emotional support animal.
Service animal fraud
Because the law does not require handlers to provide documentation of disability, it is relatively easy to pass a dog off as a genuine service animal. And there are organizations in the US that will provide documentation for an emotional support animal at low cost. This documentation may not meet the requirements for legal documentation based on a medical diagnosis. For these reasons, it is inexpensive and relatively simple to fraudulently claim that a pet is an assistance animal.
Why would pet parents want to commit assistance animal fraud? Restrictions on pets and the costs of pet care are two drivers of the increase in fake assistance animals. And some people view this type of fraud as a harmless act.
Tight restrictions on where pets may accompany their owners in the US are frustrating to many pet parents. At a time when an owners view pets as members of the family, pet parents are pushing back against what they see as unnecessary restrictions on pets. Claiming that a pet is an assistance animal is one way, perhaps the easiest way, to circumvent these restrictions.
Another reason people may fraudulently claim their pet as an assistance animal is to avoid some of the costs of pet care. Under the Fair Housing Act, those with assistance animals do not pay additional pet rent or fees. Just like service animals, emotional support animals do not incur airline fees.
Finally, people may view assistance animal fraud as a victimless act. “Does it really hurt anyone for me to use existing laws to take my pet into this restaurant? On this bus?” some may ask. Well, the issue may be more complex than it seems at first glance.
What’s the problem with fake service animals?
The AVMA has released a position paper on Assistance Animal Fraud. The paper outlines three main problems that assistance animal fraud may cause. Service animal fraud makes it harder for those who need real assistance animals to consistently obtain reasonable accommodation. Fraud also causes decreased goodwill for service animals and may lead to decreased access for those who need them. And finally, the large numbers of fake service animals make it harder for real service animals to do their job.
Decreased good will
How do fake service animals make it harder for real service animals? One problem is that this fraud decreases goodwill for those who genuinely need assistance. When poorly-trained fake assistance animals act out in a public space, the public becomes less tolerant and more suspicious of all service animals. Recently, there have even been cases in which fraudulent assistance animals have become aggressive and injured people.
If people are suspicious of service animals, it is harder for those who need them to seamlessly use their animals in public. The law does not require service animals to wear a vest or other identification. When the handler of a service animal has an obvious disability, such as blindness, it’s pretty easy to recognize that the service animal is genuine. In these cases, the handler usually encounters no problem with getting reasonable accommodation. But what happens when the handler has a less visible disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or epilepsy?
Service dogs may be trained to detect the onset of anxiety attacks or seizures. They may learn special tasks to help those with anxiety disorders or PTSD. These tasks may include placing their bodies between their handlers and others in a room, leaning on the handler during times of stress to provide physical comfort, or other subtle behaviors. Because the handler may look and act “normal,” people may suspect that the service dog is unnecessary, and some may even accuse the handler of fraud.
The rise in assistance animal fraud has led state legislatures to comtemplate, and in some cases to pass, legislation that increases barriers to access for those who need an assistance animal. Such bills may require training certification (this increases the costs to those with disabilities) or proof of disability. Some handlers are concerned that states may refuse to acknowledge the need for service animals in cases of psychological disorders.
Decreased ability to do the job
The presence of poorly trained animals in public spaces sometimes makes it hard for service animals to do their job. A service animal is trained to ignore distractions, including other animals. But a reactive or even friendly animal may attempt to interact with the service animal. A disruptive animal may force the handler to stop or to move around the other animal. As a worst-case scenario, other animals may attack and injure the service animal.
What are potential solutions to the problem?
The AVMA lays out some potential solutions to help prevent assistance animal fraud.
- Make the laws and legal definitions for assistance animals more consistent from state to state.
Consistent definitions will allow the public to distinguish real and fake assistance animals. Consistent laws will help employees to know when they must make reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal, and when it is acceptable to limit access. If any service animal is disruptive or dangerous, for example, an employee may ask the handler to leave or take the animal outside.
- Make it harder to obtain fraudulent materials and certifications for assistance animals.
- Make it easier for pets to accompany their owners in public spaces.
- Provide broader access for emotional support animals.
What can pet parents do about this problem?
Pet parents and the public can address this problem by increasing awareness, working to pass pet-friendly legislation, and ensuring that pets are well-trained. Let people know that passing off a pet as an assistance animal is not only illegal, but it also creates real problems for the genuinely disabled. Get involved at the local and state level. Rromote pet-friendly legislation that makes it easier for everyone to take their pet with them in public spaces. Finally, make sure your pets are well-trained. Increasing public access for pets requires that pets be well behaved. Take a Canine Good Citizen certification course or basic obedience training for your pet.
Support organizations that provide service animals at low or no cost to those who need them. Warrior’s Best Friend, Battle Buddy Service Dogs, Freedom Service Dogs, Little Angels Service Dogs, KSDS Assistance Dogs, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Canine Companions for Independence, and many others are working to ensure that service animals are there for the people in need.
And for those who use and will continue to use a fraudulent service animal, it is on you to ensure that the animal is as well trained as a real service animal.