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Fake service dogs: Pet owners exploit ADA loophole

In this file photo from a 2008 report, a pitbull is seen working as a service dog for a local woman who says she suffers from recurrent seizures. Shown wearing a pink service dog coat, the pitbull is a constant companion who alerts the woman if she shows signs of a seizure, she said. - Mirror file photo
In this file photo from a 2008 report, a pitbull is seen working as a service dog for a local woman who says she suffers from recurrent seizures. Shown wearing a pink service dog coat, the pitbull is a constant companion who alerts the woman if she shows signs of a seizure, she said.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

When is a service dog not a service dog?

By definition, service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Service dogs assist people with physical and mental impairments, whether by guiding the blind, pulling a wheelchair or alerting an owner to an impending seizure.

However, some pet owners bring their non-service dogs into public establishments like restaurants and grocery stores — and easily get away with it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 grants specific rights and prohibits discrimination related to service dogs.

There are no requirements for licensing, certification or identification of service dogs, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The animals are not required to wear special collars, vests or harnesses. The ADA makes it unlawful to require proof of a disability or identification for the service dog.

When dealing with so-called service animals, businesses are only allowed to ask two questions of dog owners:

• Is the dog required because of a disability?

• What task or service has the dog been trained to do?

A dog owner's answer to these two questions must be taken at face value, regardless of whether the dog's service status is legitimate. If a service dog is out of control or exhibits behavior that threatens the health or safety of customers, the law allows businesses to ask the owner to remove the dog from the premises. Otherwise, a business can risk accusations of discrimination as well as charges, fines and lawsuits.

The proliferation of pet owners who try to pass off their dogs as service animals is seen as a threat to the validity of genuine service dogs.

Debby Phillips, president of Guide Dog Users of Washington State, relies on a seeing eye dog. The labrador was trained specifically to assist and guide her in day-to-day activities.

"Sometimes people will come up to me and say, 'is that a service dog?' I didn't get questioned so much a year ago," Phillips said, noting that she would be willing to show identification if that were allowed by law. "My dog is a seeing eye dog and he guides me wherever I'm going. My dog actually has a specific purpose in what he does."

The monetary value of such fully-trained guide dogs is about $50,000, she said. The cost involves raising and training the dog over the course of several months, often up to two years.

Several websites sell "identification packages" that help pet owners create the illusion of a trained service dog.

For $249, customers visiting the site for Service Dogs America, for example, can buy a special doggie vest and ID cards that label the dog as a service animal. The company claims the package, along with a self-administered test, helps owners "clearly identify your dog as a service dog and avoid awkward confrontations when entering public places with your dog."

The website also states that owners are responsible for training their dogs and ensuring they meet proper criteria: "Service Dogs America recognizes that you may train your own dog and supplies you with the appropriate identification to allow your dog to accompany you anywhere the public is allowed."

Legitimate service dogs are trained to behave in public, and according to reports, will usually remain calm and obey the disabled owner's commands.

What do you think?

On Wednesday, The Mirror asked the following question on Facebook: What do you think about people bringing non-service dogs into places like restaurants or grocery stores? Here are some responses posted by readers.

• Amberlynn Ellis: I leave my dog at home, so can you.

• Mary Menard: I think the animals need to be healthy, groomed and behaved to the high standards that service animals are. In that case, I am in favor. I especially oppose poorly groomed animals in public because they shed lots of allergens wherever they go. Humans' need to breathe supersedes pets' desire to enjoy public spaces. I would like a certification available, like the Canine Good Citizen Test, plus a grooming and health test that would earn pets access to public places only when accompanied by the human companion who tested with the pet.

• Melodie Hardwick: I'm allergic to dogs, so I'm not a huge fan. However, if a dog is well-behaved and can sit without bothering other people, it's no problem. There is a place I go to in Seattle occasionally that is dog-friendly and most dogs there are well-behaved. Occasionally though, there will be a dog owner that lets their dog roam free, and it will come around and try to eat the food on your table. Gross. When that happens, the dog and owner should be kicked out immediately.

• Jason Oleston: People who do this should be caned, or at the very least, tasered. Especially the dolts who bring their little runty dogs into the grocery store.

• Jason Coleman: In restaurants and grocery stores? Absolutely not! Any place that serves/sells food is no place for animals. It's rude, ignorant, and selfish for dog owners to think they can bring them in to those places. Even non-food stores like the mall, clothing shops, sporting goods stores, etc., are no places for non-service animals and dogs. Many people are allergic to dogs/cats, not to mention the health risk if the animal has an "accident" in the store.

Learn more

For more information on service animals, click here.

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