No Bull, No Fluff, No Smudges
Your news source for
Flagler, Florida and Beyond

Lawmakers Moving To Put a Leash On
Bogus Service Dogs As Abuses Proliferate

| October 30, 2017

But who's servicing whom? (Heartlover1717)

But who’s servicing whom? (Heartlover1717)

Chris Slavin was in an elevator a couple years ago with Earle, her yellow lab service dog, sitting calmly beside her wheelchair. The elevator doors opened and in walked a woman holding a purse. In the purse was a teacup poodle the color of apricots.

The doors closed just as the poodle spotted Earle. That’s when the trouble started. In an instant, the poodle leaped from the purse, flung himself at Earle, and clamped his teeth into the bigger dog’s snout, leaving Earle bleeding onto the elevator floor.

“As soon as this occurred the woman said the poodle was a service dog,” said Slavin, who has a severe spinal injury that requires use of the wheelchair. “She then said he wasn’t a service dog but an emotional support dog. Finally, she admitted he was a pet she just wanted to bring in the building with her.”

Incidents like that one in Reading, Massachusetts, not far from where Slavin lives in Danvers, have spurred 19 states to enact laws cracking down on people who try to pass off their pets as service animals. The push has been gathering steam in recent years: Virginia implemented its new law in 2016, and Colorado followed suit this year. Massachusetts is now considering a similar proposal.

“Today, any pet owner can go online and buy a vest for a dog to pass it off as a service animal to gain access to restaurants, hotels and places of business,” said Republican state Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, who introduced the Massachusetts bill. “Their animals aren’t trained and end up misbehaving in these public places, which gives real service dogs a bad name.”

Service dogs, which are trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, were first used by people with vision and hearing impairments. They are now also used by those who use wheelchairs or have other impairment in mobility, people who are prone to seizures or need to be alerted to medical conditions, like low blood sugar, and people with autism or mental illness. The American Humane Association, which promotes the welfare and safety of animals, says there are 20,000 service dogs working in the U.S.

Supporters of the new laws compare those misbehaving dog owners to people who acquire handicap signs so they can park in spaces intended for disabled people. The laws make it a misdemeanor to represent an untrained dog as a service animal, and usually come with fines of no more than $500 for an incident.

But because there is no certification or official national registry of legitimate service dogs, there is no way to verify whether a dog has undergone rigorous training to become a service animal.

That makes it hard to enforce the laws, said David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University College of Law and editor of its Animal Legal and Historical Center website, which follows public policy issues related to animals. He said he’s not aware of anyone who has been prosecuted anywhere for violating them.

Rather, he said, the laws are largely symbolic, and meant to educate dog owners as well as people who let pets into spaces where they don’t belong. “Maybe you can scare some people into being honest.”

Florida’s Law

“Any pet owner can go online and buy a vest for a dog to pass it off as a service animal to gain access to restaurants, hotels and places of business.”

Florida passed just one such law in 2015, amending its then-existing service-animal law to make it more compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The new law clarified the rights of an individual with a disability to use a service animal in public accommodations and made it a second-degree misdemeanor for someone to knowingly misrepresents himself or herself as being qualified to have a service animal in a public accommodation.

The Florida law defines “individual with a disability” to mean a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for oneself, walking, seeing, speaking, and performing manual tasks. That includes physiological disorders that affect one or more bodily functions, and mental or psychological disorders. (Those are specified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.)

But enforcement is iffy, and the law does not clearly address means of identifying service dogs.

People who pass off their dogs as service animals in order to take them into stores, restaurants, libraries, sporting events and offices are a real problem, he said, for the proprietors of those establishments, their customers and disabled people who genuinely rely on the help of their service dogs.

“A service animal is trained to be in public and to be under control and non-intrusive and not bark,” Favre said. “They are trained not to be a nuisance in any way. You should hardly even know they are there.”

Because of Earle’s training as a service dog, Slavin said, when the poodle attacked him, “My dog never moved, never retaliated, never barked.” He did nothing. That is the way a service dog is trained. They are not going to ever be aggressive. Ever.”

“Four on the Floor

Earle performs many functions for Slavin. He picks up items she drops, retrieves keys, opens doors, puts objects like library books on counters that Slavin can’t reach, and returns change or credit cards to her after purchases. She credits Earle with “enabling me to truly become part of my community.”

stateline logo analysisService dogs receive up to two years of training, which can cost more than $40,000. Before they are placed, their new owners are often required to live at the training center for a week or two to learn about caring and interacting with their dogs. Many training centers provide the dogs free of charge to disabled clients, defraying their costs through fundraising. The waiting time for a service dog is often two years or longer.

But for people who want to pass off their pet as a service dog, it’s easy enough to be convincing. Anyone can go online and purchase for about $20 the types of vests that legitimate service dogs usually wear.

The vests may help the fake service dogs gain entry, but their behavior, and that of their owners, often gives them away. Trained service dogs don’t go off-leash, bark, knock things off shelves, jump on people, play or fight with other dogs, or grab food off tables, trainers say.

And owners of real service dogs don’t carry them in shopping carts or purses. “The rule is four on the floor,” with all four feet on the ground except when a dog is performing a task, said Katelynne Steinke, a paraplegic in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with her own yellow lab service dog.

The problem is that the proprietors of establishments where people bring their dogs have no way of determining whether a dog is a real service animal.

The American with Disabilities Act requires all places open to the public, such as businesses, government agencies and entertainment venues, to give access to service dogs and their owners. And it permits them to ask only two questions: whether the dog is required because of a disability and what tasks the dog is trained to perform. It is illegal to request documentation for the dog or to ask the nature of the owner’s disability.

There’s another complication: the growing use of “emotional support dogs,” which are intended to provide comfort to those with anxiety or other emotional problems. Some of them may have received special training, although nothing as rigorous as the training for service dogs. (Emotional support dogs are not covered under the ADA and can legally be denied access.)

Some service dog owners say many businesses, unable to tell fake service dogs from real ones, allow all of them in. Many owners of service dogs avoid those places for fear of exposing their animals to danger from untrained dogs. Other businesses, they say, simply bar all dogs from the premises, even if it violates the ADA.

The National Disability Rights Network, which advocates on behalf of people with disabilities, is sympathetic to those who want to crack down on pet owners who misrepresent their dogs as service animals. But Ken Shiotani, a senior staff attorney with the organization, said the laws should aim to educate, rather than punish, and the penalties for violations should be minimal. “We want to have a positive impact on people to help them realize that what they’ve done has this very negative effect.”

Advocates for the laws agree.

Cathy Zemaitis, who helped draft the Massachusetts bill and is director of development for National Education for Assistance Dog Services, a Massachusetts group that says it has trained over 1,700 dogs since 1976, said the laws should launch a national effort to teach people not to put dogs in situations they are not trained for — and to educate the public on the need for legitimately trained dogs.

The long-term goal, Zemaitis said, is the creation of a national certification program and registry for legitimately trained service dogs. “This is the beginning of a much larger conversation we need to have.”

–Michael Ollove, Stateline, and FlaglerLive

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

14 Responses for “Lawmakers Moving To Put a Leash On
Bogus Service Dogs As Abuses Proliferate”

  1. Tired of it says:

    I certainly hope they pass this bill. It is ridiculous how many people are bringing their so called little yapping service dogs into business establishments. Tell me how a Chiwahwa is a service dog? Real service dogs will not react in a aggressive way towards other dogs or people. Trained dogs are well behaved and friendly.

  2. Buck Troesch says:

    Thank the Deat Lord that someone recognized the abuse of a service for those who truly need a service animal. We have seen them in restaurants, food stores, retail stores and even doctors offices and were told they were emotional support service animals. Most of them being teacup or minerature sized pets.

  3. USA Lover says:

    So they’re going to try to regulate Good luck with that. They can’t keep them in supply. This is a mean spirited and corrupt world we live in,now fueled by an Internet where you can buy anything. If they take their dogs in a retail store or restaurant and are asked if the dog is legit,they only have to say yes. You question them,they bad-mouth you or worse,sue you. Beam me back to the old days,Scottie.

  4. Concerned Observer says:

    It’s sad (and ultimately expensive) to have to create such laws, but anyone with a moral compass which allows them to falsely identify their pet as a service animal is just as likely to fraudulently obtain a handicapped parking placard. How does society protect those that actually need the protection? The problem arises in that we have law enforcement officers to issuing citations and courts to enforce the penalties for handicapped parking abusers, but I don’t see the same enforcement practical for service animal abuse. So, how will the law work?

  5. another vet says:

    Here’s a clue if the dog is being carried, it’s probably a fake service dog

  6. Sw says:

    Leave your pets at home or stay home

  7. Charles F. Ericksen, Jr says:

    We had the same challenge, during the time that school shelters were set up for Hurricane IRMA..The shelter was preparedand told to entertain, any dog, mini-horses( YES), Pigs, and any other “companion pet.”. This was even true on a cruise ship I was on , from Boston, to the Canadian Provinces, and Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine.., just last month..
    So Bow, Wow and Meow to everyone …

  8. YankeeExPat says:


  9. Dantel says:

    As many Morons taking their dogs into Lowes and Home Depot, I thought maybe these stores were training service dogs for customers.

  10. Stan says:

    Just like many people in our Country,give them an inch, they will take a mile!!! Just like the NFL is acting.

  11. Crystal says:

    Just some clarifications
    Four on the floor is an ethics thing not a law
    The ADA states small service dogs can be held or carried in a harness on the handlers chest. For small dogs may detect changes in their handlers breath, it may be a preference for the handler to carry them. That doesn’t mean they can set their dog down in carts or on countertops in public though. Businesses have a RIGHT to dictate how their property is utilized. That includes refuses to allow dogs in their shopping carts.

    Also some service dogs do work off leash. I mostly have seen it with those in wheelchairs or scooters.
    And though usually frowned on, barking can still be a way to alert to a seizure or in cases of intelligent disobedience where the handler is not listening to the dog alerting so it escalates to barking.

    In the state of Florida, service dogs in training are allowed the same public access as fully trained service dogs just FYI.

  12. Lazaruis says:

    This national farce also makes it leagle for pet owners to travel by plane at no extra charge for the pets.
    These lying bastards should be heavily fined when caught without a certificate of training and a doctor’s note .
    I have personally seen these fake service dogs and they are easy to spot by their bad behaviors, not to mention some with no “service dog ” jackets .
    I have even heard of people using this tactic to get cats , pigs, and parrots in to places they deffinetly don’t belong . I guess security people are to shy to step up and do the right things that would discourage illegal acts of this sort .

  13. Sherry says:

    Another “symptom” of many “self absorbed and selfish” people in a society that has lost its moral compass. Culminating with the fine example of who they elected president.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I was at the hospital not long ago and a dog was brought in sitting on the couch/chair rubbing its anus all over and then the older man goes into the procedure area like nothing’s wrong with him and gives the dog to his son who is voluntarily verbally defending the presence of the unvested dog.

    Today I was at Bob Evans and an older woman came walking in with her poodle on a long leash with no service vest. Those that abuse the service dog option should be fined like one is when the park in a handicap parking space with no permit. A hefty $250 or better yet $500 fine will stop these fake abusers. Service dogs are not trained to be on the furniture. The abuse is becoming unhealthy.

Leave a Reply

Read FlaglerLive's Comment Policy | Subscribe to the Comment Feed rss flaglerlive comment feed rss

More stories on FlaglerLive


support flaglerlive palm coast flagler county news pierre tristam
fcir florida center for investigative reporting
FlaglerLive is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization | P.O. Box 254263, Palm Coast, FL 32135 | Contact the Editor by email | (386) 586-0257 | Sitemap | Log in