Fake Service Animals Hurt Real Disabled People, Store Carpets

No matter now much you wish you could bring your pet everywhere, it’s not cool to pass your dog off as a service animal in order to do so. The problem is that impersonating a service dog is very easy to do, thanks to the privacy rules that are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Business owners aren’t supposed to ask someone, “What do you need a service dog for?” since that can reveal very personal medical information that you might not want to share with strangers. They can ask you whether your animal is a service dog, and…that’s about it. Service animal vests and harnesses are easy to buy online, and some cheaters are making life very difficult for real service animals and their humans.

Emotional support animals are useful to some people and can get owners exemptions to pet restrictions in their housing, but they’re not allowed to go everywhere that their owners are allowed to be. Service animals are. They’re almost all dogs, and are trained to perform a specific function related to their owner’s medical condition. We’re most familiar with guide dogs, but there are also dogs that can alert owners to an impending seizure or low blood sugar episode, or that are trained to avert episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most real service animals are almost invisible, with impeccable manners while they’re working. (Off the job, they’re just dogs.) Business owners might have a bad experience with an impostor service dog and ban actual service animals. That happened recently in Massachusetts, prompting a boycott of a diner. Beloved convenience store Wawa had to pay a customer $12,500 after kicking his service dog out of a store.

Technically, it’s a federal crime to walk around with a pet impersonating a service animal, but a hard one to enforce. “We don’t have enough police to stop murders,” one person with a service dog pointed out to the Associated Press, “much less stop people from hauling around pseudo service dogs.” That’s true. Even a federal ID card, which some people suggest, probably wouldn’t prevent the abuse and misunderstandings that continue to occur. People will continue to abuse the rules, and business owners will continue to misunderstand them.

Impostor service animals posing growing problem, hurt people with disabilities [Associated Press/Washington Post]