Our Opinion: Confront glut of fake service dogs

Our Opinion | Our Opinion

For thousands of Americans, a service dog acts as a lifeline to independence, dignity and sometimes even survival. Dogs can be trained to do amazing things: Guide the blind; alert someone with epilepsy to an imminent seizure; carry shopping baskets and offer payment for people with mobility impairments; calm and ground someone suffering from acute symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s Suzanne Hirt spoke to one mother whose autistic son is prone to taking off; his service dog Arlo wears a tether that’s fastened to the child, and will lie down if the boy tries to run.

Federal law acknowledges how important these working animals — who should never be referred to as pets — can be. That’s why service dogs are granted special access rights to accompany their handlers anywhere the handler has a legal right to be. (Emotional support animals, who comfort people with diagnosed psychological disorders, do not have the same access rights.)

Yet service-dog status is open for abuse. Several spurious Internet “registries” offer fake certifications, badges and vests to anyone willing to pay $50 and lie. As a result, the number of pets masquerading as service animals in stores and restaurants is on the rise. The inevitable pushback is hurting people with legitimate disabilities, including invisible but very real disorders. Faking service-animal status is illegal in Florida, but the law is rarely enforced.

Let’s be absolutely clear: Faking service-animal status is the moral equivalent of counterfeiting a handicapped tag to claim the best parking spots. It’s selfish and wrong. Pet owners with fake credentials who shrug and say “I’m not hurting anybody” are fooling themselves.

The damage starts with the pet they profess to love. Legitimate service animals undergo thousands of hours of training, in part to acclimate them to the stress of being in public spaces full of distractions, temptations and frightening noises. Even the calmest pet will show signs of distress in an unfamiliar environment.

That stress can translate into bad behavior — urinating or defecating, cowering or becoming aggressive. Many service-dog handlers have at least one story of their dog being attacked by another dog while performing their duties.

Due to the rise of fake credentials, handlers of real service dogs — who fought hard for the right to have their animals with them — say they are losing ground. Some frustrated business owners are denying access to legitimate service animals in part because violations are becoming so blatant. Others, worried about a lawsuit, are timidly allowing people to bring untrained, undisciplined pets into places pets clearly don’t belong.

Businesses that are consistent and educated on the law are better prepared to deal with fakers. That’s the strategy laudably adopted by Publix, which reinforced its longstanding ban on pets other than service animals last month and said it would better train employees.

Under federal law, businesses are allowed to ask only two questions: First, whether the dog is needed due to a disability; second, what tasks it is trained to perform. These questions work in many circumstances — but many of the fake Internet registries offer coaching on legally acceptable answers.

That’s why some disability activists are warming to the idea of a more structured verification system. It’s worth exploring, especially if federal authorities and leading associations for people with disabilities can agree on new protocols that don’t place an undue burden on people with legitimate service dogs.