A Crackdown on Vest Wearing Dogs

service-dog-1633976_640Service Dogs are essential companions for many with disabilities. Recently, the rights of these dogs and their owners have been threatened by reports of people dressing up their normal pets as service animals to give them access to more places.

From planes to restaurants, people are bringing their “service animals” to public places, creating a negative reputation for those without an obvious disability that rely on a service dog. How can this happen?

In the United States, a vest or other form of service dog identification is typically all that’s needed for a service dog to enter any public place without question (According to the Americans with Disability Act, this is not required). This is important to avoid potential embarrassment to someone with a physical disability or mental illness. However, there are many groups that sell unofficial service dog vests and identification easily online. While the ADA does not recognize a service animal by solely these items, many business owners won’t think much for fear of legal trouble.

Before we point fingers, it’s important to know that there are different types of service animals and many don’t know the rules and regulations regarding each one.

There are service dogs  (a miniature horse can substitute). These include mobility assistance dogs, hearing dogs, autism dogs, seizure alert dogs, guide dogs, and psychiatric service dogs.

The big rule of service dogs is a task must be performed, such as guiding their blind companion through town, paying for groceries when a wheelchair-bound owner cannot reach the counter and checking a room to ensure there are no triggers for a veteran with PTSD.

There are also therapy and visitation animals. These animals provide comfort to those in hospitals and nursing homes. They are normally trained pets and must have permission to enter public places, as they do not have the same rights as service dogs.

Lastly, there are emotional support animals. Their purpose is to comfort owners with psychiatric conditions (not perform extensive tasks). They can be allowed in housing that otherwise does not allow pets (typically with a doctor’s note).

While it’s a possibility that a joey can be an emotional support animal (It’s certainly not common.), it is not legally allowed to enter McDonald’s. Service dogs are the only ones with this privilege.

So when an imposter service dog enters a business location and causes problems, (They are allowed to ask them to leave if this is the case, but this can also occur during a flight.) it can be hard to know what to do or how to prevent the damage from occurring the next time they let a “service dog” in.

According to the American with Disabilities Act, business owners are allowed to ask an owner if the dog is a service animal and what tasks the dog performs. Now, some state governments may be providing more incentive to get business owners asking these questions and imposters to leave the vest at home.

Just after New Years, Colorado put a law into effect that punishes those who intentionally disguise their pet as a service dog. The first time an owner is caught, they receive a warning, the second time a fine between $50 and $500.

To determine whether a dog is a legitimate service dog, business owners can ask the same questions.

“Is the service animal needed because of a disability?” and “What task has the animal been trained to perform?”

The questions have been optional for years, so at first glance, this seems like a good idea. However, there are problems with these questions.

First, it’s hard to know if the new laws will be effective. If someone is putting fake credentials on their dog, it’s reasonable to assume they would be willing to say they have a disability and that there dog helps them by (fill in the blank).

Also, if the purpose of the questions is to make an effort to not embarrass the person with the disability, those questions may still be too much.

By saying what a service dog does to assist you, you can give away what type of disability you have (detecting a seizure is different that sensing a PTSD trigger).

What is the best way to address who has a legitimate disability? It’s hard to tell. Maybe instead of focusing on the imposters themselves, we focus on the false credentials.

If we can find a way to make clear what real credentials are and not and work to eliminate sources of false identification, we may have to stop asking these questions.

Having a disability is hard enough. Let’s not make it more difficult.

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