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?
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.