Cracking down on the illegal service animals


By Yining Chen


Last year, Florida passed a new law that makes it a misdemeanor to misrepresent a pet as a service animal.

Under the law, misrepresenting a dog as a service animal is a second-degree misdemeanor. Those who are caught breaking the law face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

Meanwhile, legislatures in Maine, Virginia, Arizona, Hawaii, New York, and Puerto Rico are also considering bills that would penalize people who fraudulently claim to have service dogs.

It’s a huge process for people who own or train service dogs against fake service dogs. Massachusetts has not quite enacted legislation against such activities.

“Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), it’s a federal crime to use a fake dog. But the fact is, no one get punished,”  said Michelle Callaghan, service dog handler. She said, “They don’t know how bad it is.”

For many, it’s a serious problem. Advocates for stronger legislative action say the fake service dog problem is harming everyone.

Service dog are waiting for its handler. Photo by Yining Chen.

First, they say,  it hurts those with disabilities. Once they showed their fake service animal certification to a restaurant manager, next time, this restaurant may deny service to a disabled person with a real service dog because they can’t offer any documentation.

For example, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Sydney Corcoran’s troubles at a T.J. Maxx store in July 2014 were chronicled by WCVB-TV. Corcoran, who was seriously injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, had been told by T.J. Maxx store manager that she needed to either put her service dog in a shopping cart or get out of the store. Corcoran’s mother told NewsCenter 5: “There are so many people with invisible, silent injuries, the public needs to be aware that their service animals are sometimes their lifeline.”

Another consequence of a fake service animal involves public health. Fake service animals and their owners often don’t take any training. Service dog advocates say that may mean a pet owner may not clean their pets before go to public places and carry some diseases or an untrained animal may get agitated and attack other people. According to the NBC news, in June 2014, a “service dog” defecated in an airplane aisle, forcing a US Airways plane to make an emergency landing so a Hazmat team could enter and clean the carpet.

Roxann Hamilton, the director of the Service Dog Training and Placement Program, believes states should do something about fake service dogs. “The service dog industry is still quite new in the USA,” She said, “Federal law made major changes in the ADA and clarified the service dog laws at the Federal level in 2010, As service dogs are very diverse in their training, type and trained task functions, further restrictions and changes were not done.”

Under current laws, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute offenders because of loopholes.  Right now, anyone can be the trainer as there is no certain certification for trainers. While some legal service dog programs offer their own certification, there is no set certification for service dogs. Service dogs can go anywhere as long as they are under control, but there is no official test to ensure they are controlled properly.

Service dog training programs usually offer vests. Photo by Yining Chen.
Service dog training programs usually offer vests. Photo by Yining Chen.

Hamilton, who also works for disability advocacy regarding service dogs, believes the service dog industry needs restrict regulations. “I believe all service dog handlers need to be issued a federal and/or state ID or permit to use a service dog determining they are disabled, they have absolute control of the service dog and the service dog has passed rigid uniform training and testing and has a federal and/or issued license or permit for the service dog to be used in public. Also, a Federal ID should be necessary to purchase service dog gear and patches.”

She also thinks it is necessary to regulate service dog trainers. “Without federal regulations on who can train a service dog and what their qualifications  must be, there is a free-for-all with unskilled and untrained people training their own service dogs, as well as training service dogs for others. ”

Other service dog handlers and trainers have different opinions. Edward McHarg, a military veteran and a service dog handler, said “it is not a usually problem, I don’t see much fake service dog.” He believes communities should be open to those dogs without certified training as long as they are helping their owners.

Service dog Ricky are taking socializing training. Photo by Yining Chen.

Service dog socialization trainer Chip Washington is worried about the inconvenience of dogs that are still in the training process. He explained that his  job is taking unfinished service dogs out to get used to a noise environment and stricter laws to qualify service dogs and handlers will make his work harder.

Many also concerns the privacy right of disabled people, if regulation the service dog industry means any disabled people with service animal need to be registered.

About Yining Chen 4 Articles

Yining Chen, a experienced journalist who worked 5 years in China, became a fresh students in the U.S.. In Emerson College, Yining learned Multimedia skills, and found her passion on new media industry.