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The Problem with Fake Service Dogs

August 17th, 2011 123 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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Trained Search and Rescue Dogs Assist in Haitian Relief Efforts

January 20th, 2010 No comments
Search and Rescue Dogs from Around the World are Helping Victims of Haiti's Earthquake

Search and Rescue Dogs Help Haiti's Earthquake Victims

Dogs trained in performing search and rescue services are being deployed from countries around the world in an effort to assist in relief efforts in earthquake torn Haiti.

According to Discovery News, hundreds of specially trained “sniffer” dogs and their handlers from the U.S., China, Russia, Peru, Mexico, the U.K. and numerous other countries, have made their way to Haiti to help in the rescue operations.  Debra Tosch, Executive Director of the U.S. organization National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, stated:

Our hearts go out to our neighbors in Haiti, and we’re honored to be able to help find survivors of this terrible tragedy as part of CA-TF2 (the code name for the task force). This is the day that our teams have trained for; when the unthinkable happens, SDF Teams stand ready to respond, bringing hope and comfort to victims and their loved ones.

Teams from NDSDF have been instrumental in locating and helping to rescue a number of victims buried under the rubble.  Five people were rescued on Sunday, days after the earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation.   According to Tosch, “The rescues in Haiti underscore the critical importance of Canine Search Teams in finding survivors in the  aftermath of major disasters.”

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Service Dogs for Veterans Act Passes Congress

October 23rd, 2009 3 comments

Service Dogs for Veteran’s Act

Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) first piece of legislation, the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, has passed the Senate.

Service Dogs for Veterans Act Will Provide Trained Dogs to Assist Wounded Veterans

Service Dogs for Veterans Act Will Provide Trained Dogs to Assist Wounded Veterans

The bill requires the “Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program to assess the feasibility and advisability of using service dogs for the treatment or rehabilitation of veterans with physical or mental injuries or disabilities.”  The program will provide about 200 trained service dogs to disabled veterans and will set up a multi-year study to determine the costs and benefits involved.

Cost of the Program to Provide Service Dogs to Veterans

The cost of the program is about $5 million out of the $680.2 billion 2010 Defense Authorization Bill.  The cost of training each service dog is about $25,000.  Although there are a number of charitable groups that raise the money and provide training for service dogs, the waiting list for trained service dogs is long, reports the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

The funding for this bill is not intended to take the place of the work nonprofits do.  Its goal is to study the feasibility of government funding for service dogs in the treatment and rehabilitation of wounded vets.

What is Next for the Service Dogs for Veterans Act?

The bill was approved in Congress on Thursday, October 22, as part of the Defense Authorization Bill. The legislation was co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA).  Representatives Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Ron Klein (D-FL), championed a companion version of the bill in the House.  It now awaits the signature of President Obama to become law.

S. 1495 – Service Dogs for Veterans Act, as introduced.


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What Is a Service Dog? A Court Case in Wisconsin Will Test the Issue

August 6th, 2009 9 comments

Stephen Bottila claims his German shepherd mix dog is a service animal and that Madison, Wisconsin police unlawfully ejected him from a restaurant and a city park with his dog in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bottila contends the dog has the ability to alert him to oncoming epileptic seizures.

But a former Madison police officer testified in a deposition that the dog lacked a harness or any other item identifying it as a service dog at the time of the incident at the park.  In the lawsuit, the City of Madison denies that the dog is, in fact, a service dog and challenges whether Bottila has a legitimate need to be accompanied by the dog.

Legal Definition of a Service Animal

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division:

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

It is not required that service animals wear special harnesses or collars, and proof of a person’s medical condition or the dog’s certification as a service dog may not be demanded as a condition of allowing the dog to accompany the person.

A Service Dog is Any Animal Individually Trained to Provide Assistance to a Person with a Disability

A Service Dog is Any Animal Individually Trained to Provide Assistance to a Person with a Disability

Bottila’s Civil Rights Lawsuit may Test the Definition of Service Dog

Bottila’s civil rights lawsuit is scheduled to begin Monday in federal district court, and a pending motion by the city asks the judge to exclude the dog from the courtroom.  The city argues that its presence in court would suggest to the jury that the judge believes the dog is a service animal.

The City argues that whether the dog is a bona fide service animal “or merely a pet” is a disputed fact in the case.

Since the incidents that gave rise to the lawsuit, Bottila was subdued with pepper spray and a Taser after he refused to leave a restaurant where the manager sought to eject him because of the dog.  Madison Police Captain Victor Wahl maintains the officers acted appropriately because Bottila had finished eating and had no more business in the restaurant and he resisted officers’ attempts to remove him.

Update:  The Dog will be Permitted in Court

From the Wisconsin State Journal:

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb said she will allow Stephen Bottila to bring Justice, a German shepherd mix Bottila says is a seizure-alert dog, into the courtroom during the trial that begins Monday.


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