February 2019

ESA and Service Dog Fakers

Author: Abby Bird

Some dog owners need to ask themselves this question: “How selfish am I?” That’s a pretty bold question on a topic that has received much press but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere toward a resolution. Legitimate emotional support animals (ESA) and service dogs provide serious and critical functions to people with a variety of disabilities. For ESA individuals who cannot function normally in public without the support of a dog to keep them from getting stressed, panicked, unable to cope within their environs, their support dog can be the difference between remaining house-bound or getting out into the world.

These dogs, while might be considered pets, have a dual purpose for the owner as a house dog and as a public comfort support animal. These dogs provide security and a calming function to both keep their owner stable as well as to react to and assuage stress when the owner has already gone into a panicked mode. Not all pet dogs, just because we love them and use them for comfort, meet this stringent requirement. A legitimate ES dog is required to have been recommended by the owner’s psychologist or psychiatrist as performing comfort that allows the person to be relatively stress free. A number of emotional disorders would be defined to require an emotional support dog: extreme anxiety, agoraphobia, untreatable mood disorders, paranoia, other specific psychoses, forms of other stress disorders and more. What is not included on this list is mere nervousness without the dog or a selfish desire to be able to go anywhere with your pet because you cannot bear to leave the animal at home.

Unfortunately, people often abuse the laws regarding who may have an ESA. In most but not all cases, they are small-dog owners who believe it is their privilege, because their dog is small and can travel easily. These dogs are not necessarily well-trained or even well-behaved, because the owner doesn’t think they need to be and the law only requires that they provide a comfort for certain emotional conditions. One can easily see how this might be abused, and it is! An ESA is provided no protections under the law in public accommodations.

A service animal has many more rights under the law. Service animals may go anywhere the owner may go. A service animal has been trained to perform work or a specific task that benefits a person with a disability. Helping the blind, deaf, those with physical handicaps that require stability, movement from place to place or picking up items and those that have been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Public accommodations are only allowed to ask two questions: Do you need this animal because of a disability, and what work or tasks have they been trained to perform? So here is the catch and why abuse continues. You are not required to show any written proof that this is a required service animal. While most legitimate service dog owners carry documentation, others do not. Anyone can go online for ESA or service animal badges, ID, vests, etc., but they are not real proof! Service animal registrations, vests, and any other means to identify service animals do not have any legal significance, according to the Department of Justice, and may be easily obtained online.

Some states are finally cracking down on falsification of ESA and service dog use by fining and even using imprisonment as a deterrent. The problem is that retail establishments and other places do not want to appear as bad guys to their clients, so it virtually never gets challenged! Realistically, until the ADA can balance a person’s right to privacy with the rights of the community who feel abused by the fakers, we will all be overwhelmed.

It has gotten so bad that airlines are just recently taking a stand with their own requirements. Just go to the airport and see how many ES animals board the plane. Complaints from consumers are frequent, especially when many of these animals are not trained and affect other passengers as well as the legitimate service and support animals on the plane. This gives all the animals a bad name, and because of these issues, several airlines have taken a stand.

American Airlines requires that you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; that you need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination; that the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor. The date and type of the mental health professional or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction where it was issued must be provided. The documentation should be provided to the airline at least two days before the scheduled flight or the emotional support animal will have to travel in a kennel in the checked cargo compartment or onboard as a pet, in which case all pet requirements and applicable fees will apply.

Delta Airlines recommends an early notification about traveling with animals when booking reservations, and you can request a seat assignment while doing so. The animal, however, will be required to stay on the floor beside the individual’s seat. As stated on the company’s site, “No animals are allowed to occupy seats that are designed for passengers.”

The airline expects the emotional support animal to be well-behaved and will need documentation from the individual before travel. Specifically, the letter must include the following, per the company site: title, license number and jurisdiction (state/country where issued), phone number, and signature of mental health professional stating that the passenger has a mental health related disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—Fourth Edition; that the passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination; that the person listed in the letter is under the care of the assessing physician or mental health professional.

So again the question: “Just how selfish are you?” Please abide by the meaning and intent of the law until this problem gets solved.

Abby Bird is owner of Alpha Dog Training Academy in Bluffton. She can be reached at alphadogtrainingacademy@gmail.com or by calling (843) 304-4327.

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