October 11, 2013

Fur flies over service animal impostors

Businesses can’t tell the real from the phony, and laws prohibit them from asking.

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – It’s an easy law to break, and dog cheats do. By strapping a vest or backpack that says “service animal” to their pet, anyone can go in stores and restaurants where other dogs are banned, creating growing problems for the disabled community and business owners and leading to calls for better identifying the real deal.

click image to enlarge

Wallis Brozman, 27, sits with her service dog, Caspin, outside a shopping mall in Santa Rosa, Calif. Brozman, who has dystonia, says phony service animals pose a threat to legitimate ones. “When my dog is attacked by an aggressive dog, he is not sure what to do about it and looks to me. It becomes a safety issue” for both dog and owner, Brozman said.

The Associated Press

Those with disabilities are worried about privacy and the safety of their highly trained service dogs, while business owners are concerned about health violations and damage to merchandise from impostors abusing the system.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a federal crime to misuse the “service animal” designation. And about a fourth of all states have laws against such misrepresentation. But privacy protections built into the laws make it nearly impossible to prosecute offenders. It’s even more difficult because no papers are legally required for real service dogs. Often, people who want to take their pets into restaurants or retail stores just go online to buy vests, backpacks or ID cards with a “service animal” insignia.

The law says those entering businesses with animals can be asked just two questions: Is this a service dog? What is it trained to do for you?

Efforts to make the law more prosecutable have begun, but few agree on what will work best. Ideas range from ditching privacy to doing nothing.

Corey Hudson, chief executive officer of Canine Companions for Independence in San Rafael and president of Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of training schools, is leading the effort to get the U.S. Department of Justice involved. He started writing to the agency 18 months ago but has not received a response.

Hudson wants to open talks and explore ways to identify the real from the phony.

But the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners in Michigan worries that bringing in the Justice Department could set back access rights won by those with disabilities in the past 20 years.

“While we deplore those who might be so unethical as to impersonate a disabled person by dressing their dog up as a service animal, we equally deplore the frenzy of alarm being stirred up about the risk of such abuse,” said Joan Froling, chairwoman of the IAADP.

A standard is needed, said Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants in Atlanta. “The sticky part is who will do the testing and what will be the criteria for allowing dogs to be considered assistance dogs.”

An ID card might be the simplest answer, she said.

There is a big difference in the behavior of real service dogs and impostors inside businesses, experts said. A true service dog becomes nearly invisible. Non-service pets might bark, urinate, sniff, scratch and eat off the floor.

Real service dogs can be the victims of unruly phonies, said Wallis Brozman, 27, of Santa Rosa, who has a real one.

“When my dog is attacked by an aggressive dog, he is not sure what to do about it and looks to me. It becomes a safety issue, not only for my dog ... but for me if I am between the dogs,” Brozman said.

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