By Catherine Johnson, ERC Communications and Development Intern

Take a moment and Google “service dog vest” or “service dog gear.”

For only $60, you can have your family pet pass as a service dog. Think of all the possibilities! Think of all the money you could save on boarding fees when you go on vacation! Heck, you could even bring your dog to dinner—he never did like being alone…

Across the restaurant there is a blind man with his guide dog being asked to provide identification and credentials. He doesn’t have a certificate with him (it’s not required by law), so it looks like they’re not getting in. Lucky for you and Spot, you have a $60 vest and ID tags, so you’re safe. Plus, Spot’s a Labrador, and the blind man’s dog is a mutt. It only makes sense that Spot is the “legitimate” service dog.

Seem fair? That’s the reality that service dog fraud is creating for the disability community today.  Businesses that once accepted service animals are now probing for more information, some even lashing out at individuals; simply because untrained “service animals” have been causing a raucous in their establishments.  Websites selling fake vests, certificates and identification tags to individuals are booming, and the disability community is paying the price.

In Texas, a U.S. army veteran with a disability experienced blatant discrimination at a Houston Starbucks. On February 5, an employee approached Yancy Baer and his service dog, Verbena, and told him that he could not have the dog inside the coffee shop. As Baer tried to explain that Verbena was a service animal, he claims that the employee told him “you’re not blind” and continued to press about Baer’s disability status, ultimately humiliating him before another employee stepped in to settle the situation and allow Baer inside.

Baer does not have a legal obligation to provide Starbucks with any information other than that he has a disability and that the dog is a service animal that performs relevant tasks, but situations like this are becoming more prevalent.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, revised in 2011, the only two questions that a business owner, or other officer, may ask a person with a service animal are:

  • Is the dog a service animal needed because of a disability?
  • What task is the service animal trained to perform?

So what is the redress for individuals with disabilities who use service animals to perform everyday tasks?

Some advocates are proposing that identification be necessary for all service dogs in order to maintain the integrity of the service animal institution. However, this could lead to increased barriers for people with disabilities.   While many service dogs are trained by organizations, others are not. Individuals who choose to train at home may face difficulties in obtaining certification. Such legislation would also create greater stress for service-dog handlers, who now have to worry about staying up-to-date and always carrying paperwork.

Currently, the California State Senate is discussing service dog fraud and ways to combat it. Tackling the online market of fake service dog gear would be a great step forward in combatting fraud. While jurisdictions may consider imposing stronger penalties against those who fake service animal credentials, it is also crucial that businesses understand the questions that they may ask and look to the animals’ behavior rather than appearance in order to weed out the phonies.

Regardless of how service dog fraud is addressed moving forward, it is clear that this industry is creating an undue burden on individuals with disabilities who rely on the essential services of their companions. Rather than seeking personal profit from those who proliferate this fraudulent industry, people should strive to foster communities that provide equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of disability.

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