Valley Voices

New regulations needed to protect real service dogs and spotlight imposters

By Lindsey Condra

Sally, a former rescue dog, puts her nose to work sniffing out a vial with bedbugs hidden in an office space at Canine Detection Services, with president Lisa Finke, Thursday Sept. 6, 2018.
Sally, a former rescue dog, puts her nose to work sniffing out a vial with bedbugs hidden in an office space at Canine Detection Services, with president Lisa Finke, Thursday Sept. 6, 2018. Fresno Bee file

In October 2017 in Sacramento, a man’s seeing eye service dog was attacked by another person’s pet that was masquerading with him as a service dog. Fortunately, the real service dog was not severely injured and was able to return to work immediately.

Unfortunately, this is one of hundreds of cases where fake service dogs have caused issues for people with real disabilities who need real service dogs.

It has become far too common of a practice for people to try and pass off their pets as service dogs. What the public is beginning to understand is that not every pet is a service animal, and not every service dog is fake.

Handlers with disabilities that are harder for a stranger to physically identify have come under the same scrutiny as people with fake service dogs. Dogs helping people who are blind are easy to identify. But people with uncontrollable diabetes, seizures, PTSD, and other less-obvious disabilities also have a great need for service dogs and should not be afraid to get them due to a lack of protection for them and their dogs in public, and should not have fear of using their service dog and being berated for having a fake one.

A new system for service dog identification is needed. The American Disability Association should implement a program that distributes a dog tag with an identification number to each service-dog handler to be placed in plain view on their dog’s leash.

lindsey condra
Lindsey Condra Contributed

What is a service animal? A service animal is a dog or miniature horse “that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability” (American Disability Association). The issue of fake service animals being taken into public and abusing public access rights has been applicable to only dogs.

According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are the only dogs with complete public-access rights. The act makes it illegal to ask about a person’s disability, request or require a service dog handler to present medical documentation, ask for specific identification for a service animal, or ask for the service animal to demonstrate the tasks it does for its handler. Because of how the law is written, there is not much anyone can do to enforce the service dogs-only rules and weed out the fake service dogs.

In California, a person who tries to pass of their dog as a service dog can be fined up to $1,000. But with limited to almost non-existent ways to enforce the laws, the threat of a criminal offense and fine is not enforceable because all a fake service dog handler has to do is lie about the status of their dog. The popularity of fake service dogs goes so far as scam companies setting up websites for people to print certificates stating that their dog is a service dog. All it takes is $30 and about 10 minutes to obtain one.

Service dogs are highly trained partners for people with disabilities. Fido being registered with a certificate scam company does not make him a service dog, it just allows his owner to have a pointless and worthless piece of paper to try and pass him off in the public eye.

By distributing a tag to each handler and requiring the tag to be displayed on the handler’s leash, the dog is not being specifically identified. This method also avoids invading a person’s privacy and asking for medical documentation. By registering a tag to the handler and requiring that it be attached to the handler’s leash, the rules are still enforced but it becomes substantially easier for the public to identify fake service dogs, and for police to enforce the laws regarding service dogs. Being able to identify and punish fake service dogs will lead to a decrease in attacks on service dogs by non-service dogs.

A rule could be implemented to have a hotline set up with the ADA for the American public, police, and store owners to call in the dog identification numbers to verify that the number is registered to a handler with the ADA. Numbers that are not registered with the ADA, in the case of forging, would lead to the arrest and punishment of handlers of fake service dogs.

By registering a tag number with a handler, it allows for handlers not to have to re-register their dogs when it is time for their current service dog to retire and when they have to train a new one. This method should be used because it can take effect almost immediately. It is paramount that this change to identify service dogs happen quickly and effectively to prevent more injuries to real service dogs and to keep people who are disabled from having to be without their service dogs should they be injured by a fake one.

Lindsey Condra of Sanger is a communications and pre-med student at Fresno State University.