There is trouble out there in service dog land. The nationwide publicity about pet owners passing off their dogs as service animals has become a current event. To be more specific, there is an epidemic of pet owners trying to pass their dogs off as working dogs. Did you know that, with just a minimum of information, you can go online and purchase a vest and fake ID for your pet stating it is an assistance animal?
Legitimate service and guide dog handlers are at risk of being turned away from public places because of this epidemic. As a guide dog handler, I know this problem firsthand. For example, businesses are caught in-between following the laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities and their service dogs, while also not having a clear way of identifying illegitimate service animals.
One organization that is spearheading a campaign to increase public awareness about this issue is Guide Dog Users, Inc.(GDUI). As the nation’s leading consumer and advocacy organization of people with visual impairments working with guide dogs as their primary means of mobility, GDUI hopes to educate the general public about this problem.
As a dog guide user, I am concerned about how the growing number of pet owners who misrepresent their pet dogs as service animals in order to gain access to public places, or to avoid pet fees, will adversely affect me. Currently, business owners are faced with trying to identify pets posing as service animals, a problem which is only mounting.
These kind of clashes have increased exponentially, and dog guide teams feel it each time we are barred from legitimately entering a place that accommodates the public because of a pet owner who doesn't want to leave their dog at home.
Likewise, many people do not understand that dogs and other types of domestic animals, known as Emotional Support Animals, are not qualified service animals.The sole function of these animals is to provide comfort, emotional support or well-being, and therapeutic benefits or companionship. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), only service animals that perform physical tasks or work to mitigate a disability are given the right to accompany their partners with disabilities in all public places.
Moreover, GDUI supports businesses and transportation services that allow people with legitimate disabilities to be accompanied by guide dogs and other types of service animals. They also support pet owners who maintain good control over their dogs and obey applicable local, state and federal laws regarding access for people with disabilities who use service animals.
GDUI also supports state laws that penalize individuals who knowingly misrepresent a dog as a guide dog, or other type of service animal, in order to gain the same treatment or benefits as a person with disabilities.
As a result, GDUI and other service dog organizations are struggling to find positive ways to inform the public that posing as a person with a disability with a service dog is harmful to the people who depend on genuine service dogs to assist them, and that it constitutes a form of fraud.
The United States is the most accessible country in the world. The guide dog movement has been established for 50 years; many of those early years we spent fighting for our civil rights as people with disabilities who are blind. Our dogs are indeed the quiet, masterful companions we depend upon. If someone you know is passing off a pet as a service animal, we hope you will share this blog with them and let them know they are hurting other legitimate guide dog teams.
Ann Chiappetta, M.S. is a writer, advocate and guide dog user living in New York State. Ann works as a trauma and family therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs. To view Ann’s blog, please visit www.thought-wheel.com.