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The Problem with Fake Service Dogs

August 17th, 2011 131 comments
Fake Service Dog ID

Fake Service Dog IDs are Easy to Come By

Recently, as my husband and I were waiting to board a plane from Atlanta to Tampa, we noticed a young woman walking around at the same gate.  With one hand, she held a cell phone to her ear.  With the other, she held a canvas bag.

Hanging limply in the crook of the woman’s cell phone arm was a tiny Chihuahua with a pink, rhinestone-studded collar around its neck.

We watched the woman for fifteen or twenty minutes as she walked back and forth carrying on her never ending phone conversation, all the while clutching that sad looking little dog, its back paws dangling as she gripped it by its stomach in the crook of her arm.

Finally, my cynical husband echoed my own thoughts as he remarked, “Just watch.  She’s going to claim that is a service dog so she can take it on the plane.”

Sure enough, as she boarded the plane, the woman flashed some sort of laminated card and, without further inquiry, she went to her seat.  By then, the little Chihuahua was stuffed into the canvas bag.  Cell Phone Lady was still on the cell phone.

Phony Service Dog IDs

Of course, I cannot say for certain that the woman I saw was not disabled.  Many disabilities are not readily observable to strangers.  And I can’t say for sure that the sad looking little Chihuahua hanging there like a rag doll was not a service dog, trained to help the woman with whatever disability she suffered from.

But, given the look of the entire scenario, it did raise my suspicions, particularly as the dog had more of an appearance of an unwilling and not very well-cared-for accessory than an animal trained to assist someone with a disability.

And there have been a number of disturbing stories in the news recently about nondisabled dog owners trying to pass off their pets as service animals in order to gain access with their dogs to restaurants, stores, restricted housing, public transportation, and other areas where dogs would not otherwise be permitted.

Fake Service Dog IDs are Easy to Obtain

Fake service dog vests, ID cards, certificates, and other indicia of legitimacy are readily available for sale on the internet for anyone who wants to spend a little money.  The problem is, these fake service dogs and their owners are doing a disservice to people with real disabilities who use trained animals for legitimate assistance.

On top of just plain fraudulent behavior, these phony service dog handlers:

  • Often fail to properly clean up after their animals;
  • Frequently bring animals that are poorly trained or badly behaved into establishments; and
  • As a result, give legitimate service dog handlers a bad name.

Florida’s Definition of a Service Animal

Under Florida Statute § 413.08, a “service animal” is defined as “an animal that is trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability.”  This broad definition includes animals (not necessarily just dogs) that are trained to perform such tasks as:

  • Guiding a visually impaired or blind person
  • Alerting someone who is deaf or hard of hearing
  • Assisting someone in a wheelchair
  • Assisting with mobility or balance
  • Alerting and protecting someone with seizures
  • Retrieving objects
  • Performing other tasks as needed

Florida law specifically provides that a service animal “is not a pet.”

Florida Law:  Penalties for False Service Dog Credentials?

Service Dogs are Trained

True Service Dogs are Trained to Help Their Disabled Owners

Florida law provides that a person accompanied by a service dog does not have to provide documentation that the dog is trained as a service dog.  An establishment may, however, ask if the animal is a service animal, and may ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform in order to determine whether the animal is really a service animal or just a pet.

And the establishment may exclude or remove an animal from the premises, even if it really is a service animal, “if the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.”

Although there are criminal penalties for people and companies who deny or interfere with the accommodation of a disabled person accompanied by a service animal, Florida law does not appear to provide any penalty for persons who fraudulently seek accommodation through the use of an animal falsely identified as a service animal.

How to Spot a Phony Service Dog

Wayne K. Roustan in the Sun Sentinel reports that the best way to determine whether a dog is a legitimate service dog is to observe its behavior.  Real service dogs:

  • Do not appear restless
  • Do not jump or bark
  • Will obey the disabled owner’s commands
  • Will perform tasks
  • Will lie down passively when instructed

It is a disgrace that any nondisabled dog owner would try to gain an undeserved accommodation for their pet by passing it off as a service animal.  Real service animals perform valuable tasks for their disabled owners, and several years of often very expensive training can go into making a dog a true service dog.

Nevertheless, as long as sellers are willing to sell, and owners are willing to buy, phony “credentials” for pets, all with apparent impunity, the practice of unscrupulous pet owners passing their pets off as service animals will continue.

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Dog Seatbelts: Should There Be A Law?

August 4th, 2011 5 comments
Dogs Love Riding in Cars

We Love Driving With Our Dogs - But Is It Safe?

According to a 2011 survey by AAA and Kurgo, a manufacturer of pet travel products, 56% of pet owners have driven with their dog in the car at least once a month in the past year.  And certainly one of the pleasures of having a well-behaved dog is the ability to take her along for outings.  The cliche of the dog hanging his head out a car window, ears flapping in the wind, is one that can bring a smile to your face.

But many dog owners do not consider that driving with the dog unrestrained in a vehicle carries inherent risks for the dog and for the driver and passengers.  And to make matters worse, the survey found that large numbers of dog owners exacerbate the risk by engaging in dangerous conduct when they have their dogs in the car.

Unrestrained Dogs and Risky Behavior by Owners

According to the survey:

  • 52% of respondents admit they pet their dogs while driving
  • 23% have used their hands or arms to hold their dog in place while applying brakes
  • 19% have used their hands or arms to prevent their dog from climbing into the front seat
  • 18% allow their dog to sit in their lap
  • 13% give treats to their dog while driving

The AAA/Kurgo survey also revealed that 83% of respondents acknowledge that an unrestrained dog in a car can be dangerous, but only 16% use a pet restraint.

How Dangerous Is It?

Just what are the dangers involved in having an unrestrained dog in a moving vehicle?  According to Christine Selter, founder of the Bark Buckle UP pet safety movement:

  • A 60-pound pet becomes a 2,700 pound projectile, at just 35 mph
  • Pet travel has increased 300% since 2005
  • Unrestrained pets delay emergency workers’ access to human occupants
  • Pets escaping post-accident pose many dangers, including catching the loose pet
  • Injured pets may bite first responders and rescue workers
  • Pets may escape through a window or open door and cause a second accident
  • Driver distraction is common when unrestrained pets are rambunctious

The State of the Law on Pet Vehicle Restraint

The State of the Law on Pet Vehicle Restraints

No U.S. State Mandates Dog Car Seatbelts

While several states have laws that require pets to be restrained while traveling in open areas of the vehicle, such as the bed of a pick-up truck, no U.S. state has successfully enacted legislation mandating that pets be restrained inside the passenger area of a moving vehicle.

In 2008, California and Virginia considered legislation that would have punished drivers for having pets on their laps; however, neither measure became law.

According to a November 2010 report by the Iowa Policy Research Organization (IPRO), only Hawaii explicitly forbids drivers from holding a pet in their lap.  In Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, distracted driving laws may be used to charge drivers with pets on their laps.

Should There Be Dog Seatbelt Laws?

The dangers involved in having an unrestrained dog in a moving vehicle are clear.  It is a safety hazard for the driver, the passengers, the pet, and potentially for first reponders such as law enforcement and EMTs.  According to the IPRO report, some objections to animal vehicle restraint legislation include:

  • The potential costs involved in enforcement
  • The difficulties involved in enforcement
  • A perception of over-regulation of private activities by the government
  • The costs to individuals of purchasing restraints for their pets

On the other hand, the report points out that charging fines for drivers who fail to use vehicle pet restraints could generate revenue.

Perhaps most importantly, reducing pet related accidents could save a state money, “especially given the very high costs of traffic accidents in terms of monetary damage to vehicles, health care costs and human lives.”

Not to mention the lives of our beloved pets.

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California Man Faces Possible Life Sentence for Killing Chihuahua Puppy

May 20th, 2011 6 comments

California Man Could Spend Life in Prison for Killing Puppy

Animal welfare activists often wish that people who engage in barbaric acts of animal cruelty would be punished in a way that fits the crime, including mandatory prison terms for the worst offenses.

CBS News reports that Bud Wally Ruiz of Gilroy, California, is facing a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for an act of animal cruelty.

During an argument with his wife on Thursday, Ruiz picked up her 6-week-old Chihuahua puppy and slammed it into a wall, killing it.  Ruiz has been charged with two counts of felony animal cruelty.

Life in Prison for Killing a Dog?

The reason Ruiz faces a potential term of life in prison for killing the dog has less to do with California’s animal cruelty laws than it does with the state’s “three-strikes” sentencing law.  By referendum, in 1994, California’s voters overwhelmingly approved a recidivist sentencing law in which an offender with two prior felony convictions could face 25 years up to life in prison for a third felony conviction. 

In a pair of decisions in 2003, the United States Supreme Court upheld California’s “three-strikes” law, ruling that the law does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, Ruiz has four prior convictions for assault with a deadly weapon.

Sources:

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Veterinary Malpractice: Suing a Veterinarian for Emotional Distress in Florida

March 1st, 2011 27 comments

Under Florida law, dogs and other pets are considered personal property.  This means that, in general, when a veterinarian negligently causes the death of your dog, you may recover the replacement value of the dog.  If veterinary malpractice causes injury to your pet, you may recover expenses related to reasonable medical costs.

Are Pets Mere Personal Property?

Veterinary Malpractice in Florida

But pet owners know that pets are more than mere property.  As pet owners, we know that our dogs and cats are not fungible in nature, like pencils, for instance.  We mourn the loss of a beloved animal companion similar to the loss of a friend or family member.  Pet owners have bonds with their animals that they don’t have with inanimate objects.

Nevertheless, in Florida, as in most other states, our animal companions are treated under the law much the same as the law treats inanimate objects:  as property.  Therefore, under most circumstances, a dog owner who loses his or her pet through negligent veterinary malpractice in Florida will not be compensated for emotional damages (pain and suffering).

Emotional Damages for Veterinary Malpractice:  Florida’s “Impact Rule”

The reason most dog owners will not be compensated for their emotional distress in cases of veterinary malpractice has to do with Florida’s “impact rule.”  Under Florida’s impact rule, a person claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress must demonstrate that the emotional distress he or she suffered came about because of some type of physical impact with the plaintiff. 

Florida courts make an exception to the impact rule when the psychological trauma and mental distress the plaintiff experiences are the result of seeing or otherwise directly perceiving a close family member get injured by someone’s negligence.  Nevertheless, pets are not considered family members under the law; they are considered personal property.  Therefore, this exception to the impact rule will not assist animal owners.

Intentional Infliction of Injury to the Pet

Intentional infliction of injury to someone’s pet is a different story.  In at least one decision in Florida, the court held that when someone intentionally injures or kills an animal, there is no need to prove a physical impact on the plaintiff. 

But the intentional infliction of emotional distress still requires a malicious intent to cause severe emotional distress.  The intent involved is more than just the intent to cause the death of the animal; it is the specific intent to cause extreme emotional distress to the animal owner.

In the 1964 case of La Porte v. Associated Indeps., Inc., the Florida Supreme Court stated, “Without discussing the affinity between ‘sentimental value and mental suffering’ we feel that the affection of a master for his dog is a very real thing and that the malicious destruction of the pet provides an element of damage for which the owner should recover.”

Veterinary Malpractice in Florida

Florida, like most other states, treats pets as personal property.  Because pets are personal property, compensation for veterinary malpractice is tied to the market value of the animal for replacement or the reasonable cost of medical treatment for an injury. 

Compensation for negligent infliction of emotion distress on the pet owner is not permitted due to Florida’s impact rule.  Compensation for intentional infliction of emotional distress will be allowed only with proof that the veterinarian specifically acted with malicious intent to inflict severe emotional distress on the pet owner.

Sources:  Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So. 2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995)(holding that pets are personal property under Florida law); Kennedy v. Byas, 867 So. 2d 1195 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004)(ruling that Florida’s “impact rule” prevents recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress in veterinary malpractice cases without proof of physical impact on the plaintiff pet owner); La Porte v. Associated Indeps., Inc., 867 So. 2d 1195 (Fla. 1964).

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Categories: Dogs and the Law