A total of twenty-one states have mounted a crackdown on people who falsely claim their pet is a service or support animal so they can be brought into restaurants, grocery stores or other public places that normally do not allow pets.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, last month signed into law a bill making it illegal for people to misrepresent their pets as service animals. Those who falsely represent their animals will be subject to a $100 fine and a misdemeanor charge. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a bill that was nearly identical, except those who break could be fined $250.
“I couldn’t go into a store or an airport or even an office without seeing some disorderly four-legged creature dragging its owner around, wearing a vest that said ‘service animal,'” Republican Arizona state Sen. John Kavanagh, who sponsored the Arizona bill, said. “I would see people in the supermarkets with animals in the shopping cart or walking around sniffing all the food.”
No one really knows how big of a problem this really is, but people who work in the service, hospitality and entertainment industries say they have seen it all.
Andrew Hendrickson, a northern Vermont resident who volunteers regularly at a local performance venue, said, “We’ve had dogs bark through the whole show, sit in the middle of the aisle.” He added that he once even saw one “hump the legs of a stranger.”
Hendrickson noted, “It’s kind of hard to question though,” he said. “We have very little grounds on which to challenge a patron who claims the animal as a support.”
Animal and legal experts say that the increase of reported problems is due to several factors. Number one, there is no uniform nationwide certification or registration process for legitimate service animals. And number two, there is easy access online to harnesses and vests that say “service dog.” This is all too tempting for pet lovers who want their animals with them while running errands or going out.
Another reason for this issue is a new generation of animal lovers that get notes from their doctors saying their pets help soothe anxiety or ease depression. Doctors indicate that the pet should be considered a “support animal.” But “support” does not mean “service,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act . This is the law that applies to all service animals, and under the ADA, only dogs can be considered service animals — with an exception for miniature horses.
Business owners, according to the federal law, can only ask two questions of anyone who says they have a service dog.
“They can ask only if it is a service animal, and what is it trained to do,” explained David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University’s College of Law. They cannot ask for documentation and they cannot ask about the disability, under the law, Favre said.
That makes abuses difficult to enforce.
“Are business owners and restaurants really going to go after people who claim their dog is a service or support animal? If it has a vest of if the owner says it’s helping them? They won’t. They don’t want to get sued,” said Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.
Business owners don’t want to delve into whether the animal is a “service” animal — protected under the ADA — or a “support” pet.
“It’s compounded by the confusing terminology around this,” said Amy McCullough, the national director of research and therapy programs at American Humane, an international animal rights nonprofit. “People prey upon that with the purpose of gaming the system.”
“Keep some posters up…a few timely prosecutions and good media coverage of those could serve as a good deterrent and a good reminder that people shouldn’t do this,” said Decker, of the National Disability Rights Network.
Republican Minnesota state Rep. Steve Green sponsored his state’s recently passed bill. Green said he drafted the legislation after several disabled constituents told him that their own legitimate service dogs had been fatally attacked by other dogs whose owners had illegitimately claimed them as service dogs.
“If you have a legitimate condition and the dog, or whatever animal, within reason, is, helps alleviate it, that’s great, this is America,” said Kavanagh, the Arizona state senator. “But If you’re just someone who needed to have Pookie around because you’re upset when she’s not there, that is not okay.”