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Photo credit: NY Post

     Yancy Baer, an Army veteran and amputee, gets ready each day with the help of his service dog, Verbena, as reported by Kevin Schwaller of KXAN News. Beanz, for short, brings Baer items that are out of reach – even his prosthetic. Later, Beanz accompanies Baer to the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation center in San Antonio where Baer works as a firearms instructor. Beanz’s presence is helpful not only to Baer but to the other veterans at the rehabilitation center; Baer comments that “Sometimes it’s just the boost that they need to keep going through the day for their rehabilitation” (Schwaller).

Unfortunately, the rights and safety of legitimate service animals and their owners are being threatened by a recent trend in human indecency. In order to take their beloved pet everywhere with them, people are masquerading them as service animals. According to Baer, “’The people who are out there misrepresenting service dogs is one of the [largest], if not the largest problem we have. You have dogs who don’t have public access rights who aren’t trained to responsibly behave in public. They bark, they growl, they lunge at other dogs or people even’” (Schwaller). Fake service dogs do not just pose a physical threat; they also undermine the public’s acceptance of legitimate service dogs. Cathy Burds, a Coloradan woman with hearing impairment, was grocery shopping with her service dog when she was accosted by a man who demanded to see the dog’s papers and tried to pull the leash out of her hands (Bush). “’I think they’re cheating the system and they’re cheating all of us and it causes this man to act this way,’” Burds said of those who abuse the law to take pets wherever they want (Bush).

It’s not hard to see why this problem is getting so out of hand. Federal law does not require registration of service animals (U.S. Dept. of Justice). In the absence of such a system, online retailers such as U.S. Dog Registry sell official-looking vests, ID tags, and even phony registration papers without any sort of verification. The ADA’s website explicitly states that these registration websites do not provide proof that an animal is a service dog (U.S. Department of Justice). Yet, these products are enough to embolden non-service dog owners to break the law anyway. This is because to prevent discrimination, the ADA prohibits business owners and staff from requesting any documentation of the service animal. The law allows only two questions to be asked of an animal’s owner: “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” (U.S. Dept. of Justice).

Possible solutions to service animal fraud have not adequately solved the problem. As of March 2018, twenty-two states have criminalized the use of fraudulent service dogs and have implemented fines, sometimes as little as $50, as punishment (Michigan State University). Major airlines charge between $99 and $125 to bring a pet in the cabin on a one-way flight, so the risk of the fine and a petty misdemeanor charge is not enough to dissuade pet owners (CBS This Morning). It is nearly impossible to prove that service animal fraud is being committed anyway and most businesses are too afraid of being sued to ask even the permitted two questions. According to Sande Buhai, director of the Public Interest Department of Loyola Law School, “Even if a ‘service animal’ is not housebroken or is disturbing other patrons, the business will often do nothing lest its violation of the ADA leads to fines ($55,000 for the first offense; $100,000 for the second offense and beyond), civil penalty, and personal lawsuits by pet owners” (794). Effectively, animals that are obviously pets are permitted even when public health and safety is a concern because the ADA currently does not provide a way to verify that an animal is, in fact, a service animal.

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U.S. Dog Registry Service Dog Deluxe Kit – $199

     The solution to this growing problem is an amendment to the ADA that a) creates a federal service dog registry and b) allows employees to request an animal’s proof of registration. To create a federal service dog registry, the Department of Justice could implement a system with a simple 2-step verification process. An applicant must show documentation of a disability provided by a doctor. Then, the applicant would show that their animal is properly trained. The Department of Justice could utilize the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners’ (IAADP), which is a worldwide non-profit organization that has operated for over 30 years. The IAADP accredits animal training agencies and regularly assesses these agencies to ensure standards are being met. If the applicant’s animal has been trained by an IAADP-accredited organization, the owner would only need to submit documentation provided by the organization. Because the ADA allows the animal to be trained by the owner or non-accredited organizations, the DOJ could also allow service animals to be verified by passing the IAADP’s Public Access Test (IAADP). Testing could be done in person, at one of the IAADP’s accredited agencies, or by videotaping the service animal performing the test. After both the animal’s training and the person’s disability are verified, the person would receive a federal ID for the animal to wear on a harness or vest.

This approach would deter people from attempting to pass their pet off as a service animal because it would easily be verifiable whether the animal is registered. Without a valid ID, it would be instantly apparent that the person is breaking the law. It would also remove the incentive for faking service animals in the first place. Businesses would be able to require verification for an animal to enter, and the lack of this system is what currently makes it so easy for people to bring their pet with them in “no pets” areas under the guise of service dog status.
Second, this approach would uphold the ADA’s commitment to privacy and ease of access for disabled individuals. Some would argue that such an amendment would place an undue burden on handicapped individuals, but it would actually protect their rights. This is because the verification of a service animal’s status would remove the need for the awkward and potentially invasive questions currently allowed by the ADA (Buhai 796). It would also protect service dog owners from the harm caused by those abusing the system. Because ease of access is currently being jeopardized, such as in cases of discrimination due to bad experiences with fake service dogs, the amendment is necessary to ensure that legitimate service dogs are protected by law while others are no longer able to abuse the system.

Those who argue against such an amendment claim that it would place an undue burden on disabled people. However, no such claims are made against the system of handicap parking placard system, which mandates that disabled people obtain a placard before they are permitted to park in a handicapped-only spot. Without this system, the public would essentially be on the “honors system” that is currently in place with service dogs. Access for handicapped spots is reserved for disabled people only but without placards, the public would be able to park in handicapped spots without penalty. This is exactly what’s happening with service dog use under the ADA. With no way of verifying that an animal is a service dog, anyone can abuse the system that is in place to help disabled people. As shown by the necessity of handicap placards, sometimes it is necessary to require verification of a disability so that others do not take advantage of a useful system.

In conclusion, the problem of service dog fraud is best remedied by an amendment to the ADA that creates an official service dog registry and allows businesses to require that animals on the premises have proof of registration. While state laws have attempted to remedy the situation by criminalizing service dog fraud, this solution is rendered useless without a way to verify whether an animal is indeed a service animal. Though such an amendment to the ADA would require additional effort on the part of service dog owners, it does not violate the ADA just as the handicap parking system does not infringe on the rights of the disabled. If this system were in place, the safety and public acceptance of those like Bauer and his service dog Beanz would not be threatened by people who scam the system to gain a minor convenience.

Works Cited

Buhai, Sande. “Preventing the Abuse of Service Animal Regulations.” Legislation and Public Policy, vol. 19, no. 4, 2016, pp. 771-796, Accessed 6 August 2018. This publication reports the various laws related to service animals in the United States as well as the problems with these laws that allow for service animal fraud. I use this paper in my report to address current deficiencies in federal law that make service animal fraud possible. This report was authored by Sande Buhai, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Public Interest Department of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. It was published by a peer-reviewed journal.

Bush, Stan. “’She Had Her Vest On’: Woman with Service Dog Attacked At GroceryStore.” CBS Denver, November 27, 2007, Accessed 6 August 2018. This news report highlights the personal story of a woman who has been affected by service dog scams. I use this in my report to show that service animal fraud is not a victimless crime. This report was published by a CBS news affiliate.

“International Association of Assistance Dog Partners Minimum Training Standards for Public Access.” International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), 1995, Accessed August 9, 2018. This report analyzes the minimum training standards necessary prior to a service animal’s access to the public. It concludes the “public access test” and provides a sample training log accompanied by instructions. I use this publication in my report to show a possible way to verify the training of services dogs. This report was compiled by employees, published online, and presented by a non-profit, cross-disability organization.

“Passengers Abuse Rules to Bring Animals on Planes.” YouTube, uploaded by CBS This Morning, May 14, 2005, Accessed August 4, 2018. This news report analyzes the current reasons that people abuse service animal regulations, including to bypass airline fees. I use this study in my report to show that current laws are not sufficient deterrents to service animal fraud. This report was compiled by journalists, published on television and online, and presented by a professional news agency.

Schwaller, Kevin. “Fake service dogs: The harm caused by pet owners who break the rules.” KXAN, February 21, 2016, Accessed August 7, 2018. This report highlights the story of a man and his service dog who are affected by the recent trend of service animal fraud. I use this news story in my report to show that service animals are necessary to the disabled and the right to a service animal is being infringed upon by those who commit fraud. This report was compiled by journalists, published on television and online, and presented by a professional news agency.

United States, Department of Justice. Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section.  “ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals.” American Disabilities Act, 12 July 2011, This government document explains the federal laws that relate to service animals. I use this document in my report to explain the current law as well as its deficiencies. This publication is available through the U.S. Department of Justice’s official website.