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Service Animal Loophole May Precipitate its Demise

by Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, Esq.-Mediator

The National Dog Show was held in Philadelphia in November. December brought the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Orlando, Florida. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show festivities are in New York each February. Finding a way to safely transport our top show dogs to Philadelphia, Florida and New York is often a challenge. Some of us remember Vivi, the dog who disappeared from the tarmac at JFK after Westminster. She was never found. Today, traveling with your pet has gotten even more expensive and time consuming. Dogs often have to go via cargo, which adds hours and cost to their travel. In response, people have found a clever way to solve their pet travel issues; they have them pose as service animals.

On October 14th 2013, Huffington Post Online posted an article entitled “Phony Service Dog Issue Out of Hand, Advocates Not Sure New Law Will Even Help”. The article told the story of how easy it is to illegally obtain and misuse service animal credentials and paraphernalia. Author, Sue Manning, discusses how, in order to get your companion animal to ride with you on a plane, have dinner at the adult table in a restaurant or live in a no-pet building, all you have to do is buy a Service Dog vest or ID card off an internet site.

Just as so many teenagers access fake ID’s off the internet to drink before they are of age, companion dog owners and their people feel, since they can obtain service animal vests and ID cards off the Internet, they are justified in taking advantage of this loophole. These animals gain easy access to disabled accommodations and who is really being harmed anyway? The people who truly need their service dogs.

The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was written to provide the disabled with accommodations for easier access to places we all use regularly. It advises service providers, such as airlines, hotels, restaurants or housing units, that they cannot deny access to a disabled person and their service animal upon the presentation of an animal that is working with a vest or ID card. When you read the Act, you find service animals need to be invisible, much like a cane or wheel chair. They have a job to do and need to be treated as a disabled persons working partner not as a companion.

The article points out how the misuse of service animal status by pet owners, seeking to avoid limitations on their companion animal’s accessibility, may in fact jeopardize access to the truly disabled who need their highly-trained service animal to provide support in their daily tasks. People with visible disabilities such as blindness, cerebral palsy or lost limbs, have always had easier access to public places with their service animals. When the need for a service animal is visible there is less pushback by John Q Public about why the animal is in a pet free space. They can see why and generally do not ask questions.

With our increased ability to train service animals to assist people who have long suffered with emotional or physical disabilities, unobservable with the human eye, the abuse of the system became easier. The invisible disabilities we can now help with the use of a service animal have unintentionally caused an uptick in the misuse of service animal status. Animals trained to alert their owners with PTSD, epilepsy, diabetes or those suffering from diagnosed fear or depression provide such invisible services. Yet facilities required to admit these people and their service animals are often not buying it. Mistrust of ‘the need’ in these invisible cases is an issue now due to the pet owners’ misuse and accommodators’ awful experiences. Ironically, these are usually the people who are most in need of the confidentiality ADA provides. If you were an epileptic, would you want everyone in a restaurant to know you might have a seizure? Of course not!

This misuse of an accommodation was recently hammered home at the ‘happiest place on earth’. Disney discovered their disability policies relating to wait lines for rides in their theme parks were being abused. It seemed some visitors to Disney hired a disabled person to accompany them on their Disney vacation, thereby enabling non-disabled visitors to get to the head of the line. Disney has changed their policy and no longer afforded this accommodation.

Currently, discussions are being held in New Jersey about adding notification on a persons state-issued drivers license or ID of their service animal status. It would indicate the legitimate use of a service dog by the indicated person without the need for explanation. This registry would allow the service animal user accommodations provided by law while avoiding the need to disclose the nature of the service the dog provides. The establishment‘s owner would gain peace of mind that this animal is well-trained and will not urinate, bark, scratch or bite people or animals if allowed in the building, plane or restaurant.

Disabled people with service animals should receive unique access to otherwise pet-free zones and maintain their privacy. ADA supports don’t ask don’t tell. If companion animal owners continue to exploit this loophole by buying vests for their non-service animals to access the accommodations now provided to the disabled service animal owner, it will precipitate the requirement of a note on your license or worse, like at Disney, have the accommodation become a thing of the past. These are much needed and respected accommodations. Maintain your integrity while using the service animal status. Remember, you are supporting those who truly need their service animal.

Click here to read the complete article from the Canine Chronicle November/December 2013 Issue, Vol. 38 Number 11.

Debra Hamilton is a dynamic speaker, facilitator, author, understanding trained high conflict mediator, conflict system design consultant, animal venue executive consultant, educator and founding principal at Hamilton Law and Mediation PLLC established in 2010 in the NY Metropolitan area. An expert in high conflict pet disagreements and multi-party pet ownership disputes; she was trained by Jack Himmelstein, Gary Fisher, Mark Kleinman, and Simeon Baum. She works with everyone who wants to further their passion in the care of pets while reducing their exposure to conflict and litigation. You can reach Debra at 914-273-1085 or on her website at www.hamiltonlawandmediation.com

Short URL: http://caninechronicle.com/?p=40432

Posted by on Dec 27 2013. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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