It’s easy for pet owners to go online and buy a service dog vest and ID for about $20, so they can take their dogs into stores as “emotional support animals.”
But what these owners don’t know is that their emotional support dogs are not considered service animals under Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to the ADA, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform task for people with disabilities. Emotional support, comfort, therapy or companion animals have not been trained to perform a specific job or task to help its person, and the difference between service and emotional is still confusing to many.
Kelley Fecteau, program director of Rainbow Services Dogs in Tucson and service dog owner, believes there needs to be more education on what a service animal is and does.
“What’s happening is a lot of the confusion with the psychologist and psychiatrist. They give a letter saying their client could utilize an animal for companionship and emotional support,” Fecteau said. “When they write that people think that means they can use their pet as a service animal.”
Rainbow Service Dogs is a non-profit agency that opened in 2006 and trains suitable animals to become a service animal for their owner. Due to the constant misunderstanding between the differences of service versus emotional, Fecteau has had to take more precautions in distinguishing these differences to her clients.
But for business owners it can get complicated to know if someone has a fraud dog or service dog. The ADA only allows two questions to be asked if someone states their pet is a service animal: Is the animal required because of a disability? And what work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Many states have created new laws to make it illegal for pet owners to pass off their dogs as service animals. For people who need service dogs, it can be upsetting.
“It happens all the time when people just buy a service dog vest online and just put them on their dogs,” said Zoe Bruck, peer trainer trainer for Rainbow Service Dogs and a service dog owner. “They don’t act like a service dog. It’s maddening because we work training dogs and these people are just taking advantage of the system.”
Fecteau and Bruck say it is easy to spot a non-service dog when out in public.
“They may be pulling in a different direction than their owner or lunging at other dogs. It could also be a perfectly trained dog, but the thing is that it isn’t trained for a task,” Fecteau said.
People continue to abuse the system and take their dogs into places they are not allowed, but many states and organizations are tightening up their laws and making fines for fraud dogs.
As for Arizona there are no laws specifically in place for people trying to pass their animal as a service dog, but there are many crimes one can commit if harassing or interfering with the work of a service dog. Intentionally petting without permission by the handler is a Class 6 felony in Arizona.
The use of fraud dogs harm the many people who use a service animal. Non-service animals are hurting the reputation of service dogs who help their handlers live a healthy life.
Syrena Tracy is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org