Service animals (SAs) provide freedom and dignity to thousands of people with disabilities. They come in all shapes and sizes and perform various tasks for their handlers. For example, my service dog is specifically trained to alert me to objects in my path that I cannot see and to help me judge the depth of stairs, among other vital tasks. Being legally blind, going out in public would be a dangerous situation for me without my SA.
While some SAs guide the blind, some help deliver life-saving medicine during times of need and others mitigate the effects of PTSD or autism – all of these tasks barely scratch the surface of what working dogs can do for humans.
Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of the service animal laws laid out in the Americans with Disability Act and similar laws in Canada, which do not require SAs to be registered with the government.
To qualify as a service dog, the animal must perform specific tasks that mitigate a person’s disabilities.
Handlers may have a professional train their dogs, but the law also allows individuals to train their own animal.
Many people see these laws as mere guidelines that they can easily break. They believe they can game the system and disguise their pet as a service animal. But faking a disability and passing off a pet (a service dog is not a pet) as a SA is fraud and against the law.
According to the ADA, business owners may only ask SA handlers two questions:
- 1. Is the animal a service dog?
- 2. What tasks does the animal perform for you?
Often disabilities, especially psychiatric ones, are invisible, making it impossible to determine whether or not a disability is legitimate. This gives people further confidence that they can pretend their pet is a service animal.
Fake SAs create disruption and distrust within communities. Among other things, they lack the years of distraction training, causing them to misbehave in public. True service dogs should not bark, jump, beg for food, play or disturb other patrons when working in public. If you see a so-called SA do these things, it’s most likely not an authentic working dog.
The majority of SAs are legitimate, but with service animal vests available at many online retailers, fake SAs are on the rise. Due to this, many people assume that all service dogs are frauds. This makes it harder for people with disabilities to bring their SAs into restaurants and other establishments. They are often met with distrust and discrimination. Many news outlets have reported instances of businesses denying service to veterans with service dogs and even to a young girl with autism and her pit-bull SA named Pup-Cake.
Business are not the only source of discrimination. Thanks to fraudulent SAs, discrimination comes from other patrons who often ask very pointed and personal questions to handlers in an effort to disprove the handler’s disability. Sadly, I speak from experience on this point.
To put a stop to this fraud and the subsequent discrimination, British Columbia is attempting to pass legislation regulating service animals.
Under the proposed Guide Dog and Service Dog Act, all SAs must undergo training by a Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) accredited organization. Both ADI and IGDF are internationally recognized organizations.
Dogs previously trained by non-accredited institutions or individuals must be evaluated and certified by a third-party.
Once a SA is certified, the government will issue a special tag for the dog and identification card to the owner.
Many U.S. based organizations, like Canine Companions for Independence, are campaigning for similar legislation in the states.
Tamara Vrooman says of the proposed Canadian legislation that,
“Many people with disabilities use guide and service dogs to help them live with dignity and independence. The new legislation, if passed, will help modernize and protect this important support program, improving accessibility throughout the province.”
Not everyone agrees. Elsa S. Henry, a disability advocate who is herself blind, is currently training her own guide dog. She says,
“I think regulation is fine so long as it doesn’t punish people with disabilities.”
By requiring certification from specific organizations and preventing people from training their own animals, Henry believes these regulations may actually prevent people from seeking the help of a service animal.
Training a service animal takes countless hours and comes at a great expense to the trainer. Service dog training can cost thousands of dollars. For instance, Service Dog Tutor charges $7,200 per year. SA training often takes a full 2 years. Autism Service Dogs of America charges $13,500.
Although there are many programs that subsidize SAs, not everyone qualifies. This means that, under the proposed regulations, some people may be priced out of having a service animal.
Additionally, while there can be certain across the board standards, like distraction training, tasks can vary drastically from handler to handler, making a blanket training program problematic.
Despite these pawtential issues, one thing is clear: service dog fraud must stop. The good thing is that advocates are being more vocal about the issue, drawing more media and political attention. Hopefully, through these conversations, we’ll be able to address the situation in a way that puts an end to fraudulent service animals without limiting SA access to those with disabilities.
Featured image via San Francisco Department of Veteran Affairs.