Yet another state is taking aim at the shameful trend of passing off household pets as service dogs. Massachusetts has filed a bill modeled after similar laws in Florida and Colorado. If passed, it would become a civil offense to misrepresent a pet as a service animal in the Bay State. The bill further seeks to protect the disabled from receiving untrained or poorly trained dogs from unscrupulous organizations.
Congratulations Shadow! We hear you are doing wonderful work as a NEADS Service Dog and we can’t wait to see you at graduation!
Cathy Zemaitis is a spokeswoman for NEADS, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton, MA that provides impeccably trained service dogs to disabled Americans and veterans. She says that the issue of fake service dogs is far more than a problem – it’s an epidemic; an epidemic that undermines the very concept of service animals when impostor dogs behave badly.
“What’s happening is you get somebody who thinks it’s cute to slap a vest on Fluffy and take Fluffy to CVS. What’s the harm?” asks Lowry Heussler, a Cambridge resident who uses a service dog to help her walk. “The problem is that all the work we did of convincing the public that if you see a dog wearing a cape, that dog is safe and reliable and you don’t have to worry about anything — that work is being undone.”
Unfortunately, anybody with the will to do so can easily go online and obtain a service dog vest, cape, “official certificate,” or “instant ID.” Dogs can even be “registered” for free. There is currently no official service dog registry, and service animals are not required to have special equipment, documentation, or even formal training.
Doc tried to do some holiday shopping for his friends over the weekend.
Making the scheme even simpler for the impostors is the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act forbids questioning those with service animals, unintentionally protecting the wrongdoers in its effort to preserve privacy and protect against discrimination.
Businesses may only ask: Is the animal required because of a disability, and what work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform? They may not inquire about the person’s disability, ask for proof that the animal is a service dog, or require the dog to demonstrate its training.
According to Zemaitis, it costs about $42,000 for NEADS to produce one service dog for a disabled American. The video below features a highly-trained NEADS dog in action.
The bill filed in Massachusetts would target people who use fake service dogs to obtain privileges meant for the disabled, such as entering businesses where pets are otherwise banned, and flying fee-free on a commercial airline. If passed into law, Massachusetts fakers will face fines up to $500 and 30 hours of community service.
The legislation would not apply to animals that provide only psychological comfort such as emotional support animals – another subset that has been rampantly abused by impostors. An organization called Assistance Dogs International has developed minimum standards for service dogs, but without an official national registry or certification process, anyone can self-train a pet and call it a service animal.
What do you think of the “epidemic” of fake service dogs in America? Tell us your thoughts and personal experiences in the comments.
Featured Image via Facebook/NEADS: Dogs for Deaf & Disabled Americans