ADA and Service Animals: Looks Can Be Deceiving

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Being someone who both loves dogs and has great interest in all the challenges involved in accommodating people with disabilities at meetings and events, I read with great interest an article in the Los Angeles Times about a growing problem with so-called fake service dogs. It seems that some people are so attached to their pets that they buy fake service animal vests and try to pass off Pluto as a assistance pooch, even though the person has no disability and the dog or other animal has no abilities when it comes to providing help to their owners. That is, of course, both despicable and a federal crime under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also can be hard to tell the real thing from the fake, especially since all you can legally ask an owner is, "Is this a service dog? What is it trained to do for you?," according to this NBC News article.

But be very, very careful before you accuse someone of using their pet to impersonate a service animal. For example this quote from the LA Times article made me grind my teeth a little:

Jim Power, a licensed trainer of guide dogs for the blind from San Rafael, was visiting a crowded Southern California theme park a week ago when he spied "a 20-something lady...with a Chihuahua on a leash." The small pooch wore a vest identifying it as a service dog.

"It didn't particularly look...very legitimate," Power told a state Senate committee looking into what the disabled community, dog trainers and businesses call a growing problem: fake service dogs.

Not all service dogs are German shepherds, labs, or golden retrievers, though those breeds are well represented in the field because of their smarts, trainability, and dependable natures. And some of the services these animals are providing are to help mitigate disabilities that are not obvious to the naked eye. Guide dogs for those with hearing and sight impairment are fairly well known, but there are also animals that help people who have seizure disorders, cognitive and mental impairment, and emotional disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, among many other invisible disabilities. That Chihuahua may have been his owner's lifeline in a way we can't know, and frankly, it's not up to a casual observer to judge whether or not a service animal deserves its vest, or its owner deserves the help of that animal. (Note: There is a difference between emotional support and therapy animals, like certified therapy dogs that visit hospital and nursing home patients to bring them comfort, and service animals, which are trained to provide actual services, not just snuggles and smiles—though I'm a firm believer in the value of those too! They're just not covered under ADA).

OK, I understand that no one wants untrained pets pooping in the potted plants in a hotel lobby under any circumstances, and service animals can be disruptive at a meeting, though mainly because of other people, not the animals. In fact, that's probably the surest way to tell a fake service animal from the real deal: A trained service animal is focused on its owner, not the smells in the hotel lobby, not other dogs on the street, and not the people walking down the aisle at the meeting. They generally speaking would rather die than embarrass their owner by doing something as crass as soiling in an inappropriate place, or calling attention to themselves by begging, fighting with another dog, or doing any other unwanted behavior. They do their best to never deviate their attention from their job, which is to protect and serve their person. It's what they train for, and what they live for.

Just as you would never dream of denying someone a cane, wheelchair, specialized food, or other accommodation for a disability, I would hope you would not take it upon yourself to decide when, and what kind, of service animal one of your guests or attendees needs to have the fullest, most realized possible experience at your event.

And for those who think it's a grand idea to pass Princess off as a service animal, knock it off. It is not just below despicable, it's fraud.

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