Is it worth breaking the law for a few extra minutes with Fido? It can be a hazard to fake a service designation for your dog.
The bonds we share with our pets can be some of the most powerful ones we experience in our lifetime. But is it worth breaking the law for a few extra minutes with Fido? That's often what pet owners are doing when they purchase a service animal vest online and pretend that an untrained pet is a service animal just to have them close by when traveling or enjoying dinner at a restaurant.
What many people may not realize is that trying to pass off an untrained pet as a service animal can be potentially dangerous for people who require a service animal because of a disability. Here are some key reasons not to pretend your pet is one of the 20,000 active service animals and the problems with making fraudulent claims that your pooch is a service animal.
1 It Allows Your Pet Entry Into Places Where They Shouldn't Be
It's tempting to pass off a pet as a legitimately trained service animal so he or she can gain access to restaurants, airplanes and other places where pets aren't typically allowed. But here's the thing: If your pet isn't a true service animal, they likely don't have the training to behave appropriately in places that are typically off-limits.
Service animals, on the other hand, have been individually trained to perform specific tasks to assist people with disabilities. Picked as puppies at around eight months, service animals (including guide dogs, hearing dogs, seizure response and psychiatric service animals) all typically undergo about a year of basic house training and another six months of advanced training. They can be in public places — not only because their owners need their existence — but also because they are specifically trained to be in public, to be under-control and non-intrusive.
2 It's Illegal.
Fraudulently representing a pet as a service animal is a crime in 19 states. It's a petty offense or minor misdemeanor in most states, including Colorado, Maine and North Carolina. If you're caught doing it in Florida, you'll likely be sentenced to 30 hours of community service for an organization that, not ironically, helps individuals with disabilities. The laws are most stringent in California where knowingly misrepresenting your beloved Maltipoo could earn you up to six months in prison and a hefty fine of up to $1,000.
David Nowak is president and lead trainer of Kayla's Paws Service Dog Training in New Jersey, a state where faking a service dog can result in a fine of between $100 and $500. "It may or may not be easy to spot the 'fake' service dog," Nowak tells LIVESTRONG.COM. "However, if someone really feels that the dog is not a service dog and is being passed off as one, they may contact the local police."
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3 It Exploits the Americans With Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all places open to the public to give access to service animals and their owners. (Emotional support animals, comfort animals and other therapy animals are not considered service animals under the ADA.) Passed in 1990, it provides protections for people who require the aid of service animals — protections that individuals who are trying to fake it sometimes exploit.
For example, even if a business owner suspects that a pet is not a legitimate service animal, under the ADA he or she is only allowed to ask if the service dog performs a task and what that task is; the business owner can't insist on seeing the task performed, ask what disability the person with the service animal has or inquire whether the animal is trained or certified. For people looking to fraudulently misrepresent their pet as a service animal, that's a big enough loophole to fit a Great Dane through. Ethically though, it's no less suspect than parking in a handicap spot just to save a few steps when going to the supermarket.
4 It Puts Lives of People Who Need Service Animals at Risk
For someone who actually relies on a service animal to get through their day, a seemingly innocent bending of the rules — like taking an untrained animal to a restaurant or on a plane — can be devastating. "If the pet dog was directly in the guide dog's space it could cause the guide dog to feel threatened and not have the ability to get away from the untrained pet dog," says Guiding Eyes for the Blind's Shanon Walsh, who has been training guide dogs for the blind for 19 years. "In most circumstances, the guide dog should have enough training to just ignore the pet dog, but losing focus could cause the dog to miss stopping at a change in elevation or not navigating around an obstacle."
5 It Makes Life More Difficult for People Who Need Service Animals
When animal who's being passed off as a service animal behaves badly in a place of business, it can sour business owners on the idea of allowing service animals altogether. Walsh explains how this can have a negative impact on the people who need them the most. "I was recently working with a new guide dog team in their home area of Chicago," she told LIVESTRONG.COM. "We went to a local pizzeria, and when we walked in we were immediately refused entry. After some discussion, we found out that another service animal visits the pizzeria with very poor manners. That dog jumps on tables and customers when they walk in. We spent some time educating the owner on the ADA and how to identify when he can and can't refuse a guide dog."
7. It Puts Trainers in a Bad Position
Besides the people who rely on service animals every day, the people most affected by others fraudulently claiming pets as service animals are the trainers who devote their lives to making sure that real service animals can do their remarkable work. "There are hundreds of disabled people that use service dogs every day to help mitigate the disabilities in their lives," says Kayla's Paws' David Nowak. "It may make you feel good having your untrained pet impersonate a service dog so it can be with you, but not only are you breaking the law, you are quite possibly putting the disabled person's life in harm's way."
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What Do YOU Think?
Have you seen people in your community passing off pets as official service animals? Have you considered doing this too? Should the laws be more stringent? How do you travel with your pets? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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