On a recent trip to San Francisco, I sat next to a young lady and her loud, misbehaving Chihuahua. While I am all for flying with pets (I bring my dog on almost every flight I take), I was extremely suspicious as to how her beloved pet was able to pass the rigorous tests necessary for becoming a certified service animal. After doing some web-based research, I realized that the problem of misrepresenting pets as service animals is actually quite prevalent in the United States. Many individuals will simply go online and buy a fake service dog vest in order to avoid having to leave their dog outside of pet free establishments or rent in buildings with no dog policies. While I can definitely understand the pull of not wanting to leave your pooch in the cold, such tactics are actually a federal crime and can hurt the reputation of true service animals and their handlers.
True service animals, defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks to assist individuals with disabilities, are protected under the ADA. These animals are allowed to travel wherever their handlers go and cannot be asked to wait outside of primarily “dog free” establishments. In many states, including Illinois, business owners may not ask individuals with service animals for documentation or proof of service animal status. They also may not bar them from entering for failure to disclose the disability for which the animal is employed. Under the ADA, the only two questions business owners are legally allowed to ask are: 1. whether the service animal is required because of a disability, and 2. what work or task the dog been trained to perform. This loophole allows for individuals to easily scam the system and has led to increased skepticism amongst business owners nationwide.
Although it may not seem evidently harmful to falsify service dog status, doing so puts the jobs of real service animals in jeopardy. True service animals are trained to support individuals with a variety of disabilities, such as guide dogs for individuals with vision impairments, hearing or signal dogs for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, psychiatric service dogs, and seizure response dogs, among others. These tasks go far above and beyond the normal behaviors of pets, and bringing a misbehaving dog into a restaurant or grocery store may lead people to falsely believe that service animals are simply pets with privileged status.
While I fully believe that dogs should be allowed in more public places, I also understand the ethical implications that come from lying about service animal status in order to receive perks. Misrepresenting a pet as a service dog only serves to propagate ableism and harms the community of individuals with disabilities who rely on their canine companions to increase their independence.